Every time I watch a cooking show on television and the chefs are challenged to make a vegan meal, they literally freak out. They act like they are at a loss to make a delicious dish without meat, dairy, eggs, or honey. Anyone watching that would think it must be really hard to cook and eat vegan food, maybe even almost impossible. But it isn’t. Cooking amazing vegan food is easy once you learn some basic tips.
Being vegan also does not mean that you have to give up all your favorite foods. No way! It just means having all your old favorites in a different way – a kinder, healthier way. I don’t think there is a dish out there that someone hasn’t already veganized, whether it be comfort food, diner food or elegant food, breakfast, lunch or dinner, appetizer, entrée, or dessert. So, if you think being vegan means giving up your favorite foods, think again! With a little effort and imagination, you can make vegan versions of any food.
1. Look at Food With Vegan-Colored Glasses
From a culinary standpoint, vegan food is not so different from non-vegan food. It just requires a few substitutions and a little imagination and creativity. Sure, at the beginning of my vegan journey, I would watch cooking shows on TV and bemoan the fact that I could no longer eat what they were cooking. Now, whenever I see a recipe, I automatically substitute the animal products with vegan products in my mind. If there is chicken, I see tofu. If there is fish, I see tempeh. If there is beef, I see seitan, mushrooms, or jackfruit. Looking at recipes with appropriate swap-outs in mind lets me believe that anything any chef makes, I can make vegan.
2. It’s All About Flavor and Texture
Delicious food is not dependent on whether there is meat or dairy in it; it’s all about texture and flavor. When anyone describes an amazing meal they had, they talk about the food being spicy, tender, juicy, crispy, etc. Once you learn to cook plant-based food so that it has the flavor and texture you desire, you won’t miss the meat. A common mistake people make with vegan foods is to NOT treat it as they would meat. No one would cook a steak without seasoning it first whether with a rub or a marinade; yet so often cooks take a block of tofu, drain it, cut it up, and just cook it without doing anything to it first. No wonder it tastes bland and flavorless! Having an arsenal of marinades and spice rubs will bring out the best in any ingredient, vegan or not. Learn about different spice blends and sauces to give your food amazing flavors. One block of tofu can easily become General Tso’s Tofu, Tofu Scampi, Tofu Pad Thai, or a Mexican Tofu Scramble.
No one ever said, “That was delicious. It was so bland and spongy.” Learn how to properly prepare and cook tofu. Press the water out of the tofu and let a zesty marinade seep into it. You’ll be amazed how much flavor you will experience. Freeze the tofu before pressing it to get an even denser, chewier texture that will make it the perfect stand-in for chicken. Steam tempeh before cooking it to make it softer and more tender. The texture is almost flaky which makes tempeh a perfect choice for veganizing seafood dishes. Break up tempeh in a food processor and it gets the texture of ground beef which is perfect for tacos or shepherd’s pies. Baking seitan rather than boiling or steaming it will give it the hearty chew of ribs while braising it can make it soft and tender for pot roast. Mushrooms and jackfruit, when cooked with the right ingredients, can make delicious vegan French Dip Sandwiches and Philly Cheesesteaks.
3. Vegans Have Choices
There was a time when being vegan meant eating a lot of stir-fries and brown rice. Today, vegans have so many choices when it comes to food. When it comes to store-bought products, there is a vegan substitute for almost everything and if there’s something missing, I can guarantee you someone is working hard to develop it. There are vegan meats, vegan chicken, vegan fish, vegan hot dogs and sausages, vegan milks, cheeses and ice creams, vegan butter, and even vegan eggs. These incredible products allow us to make all our favorite dishes in a snap.
If you would rather not buy prepared products, you can learn to make vegan versions of your favorite ingredients yourself. Recipes are everywhere, in books and on the web, that will teach you how to make your own non-dairy milk, your own cheese, your own seitan or tofu, your own vegan butter, your own sausages and burgers, your own “fish” fillets and scallops, and even your own gluten-free vegan meats. Take advantage of all the knowledge out there just waiting for you to use it.
4. Practice, Practice, Practice
One of the best ways to become a great cook is to keep cooking. And learning. Read recipes in magazines and cookbooks. Watch cooking shows on TV. Don’t just read vegan recipes or watch plant-based cooking shows. Learn from all the culinary pros who have cooked before you. They all have lessons to learn from. Don’t just follow recipes blindly; learn the “whys” of cooking. Choose a recipe for a favorite food, say Mozzarella Sticks or Macaroni and Cheese, read through the ingredients and steps and figure out how you will make it vegan. What animal-based ingredients need to be substituted and plant-based ingredients will be the best stand-ins? Then try it and if you’re less than pleased with the results, try it again. Before you know it, you will know how to make vegan versions of all your favorites.
5. Think Positive
A positive attitude is the best ingredient. Don’t think of a vegan version of a dish as somehow “less than” the non-vegan version. Avoid terms like “meatless,” “faux,” “fake,” or “alternative.” These terms all have a negative connotation that says the food is missing something or isn’t real. Vegan food is definitely real food. Embrace the vegginess of it. Be confident that your vegan versions of your favorite foods will be delicious, satisfying, and will wow your friends and family. The best thing you can serve with your meal is a smile.
With these guidelines and some creative effort, you will no longer have to miss any of your favorite foods. You may even find, as I often do, that you prefer the vegan versions to the originals. Just remember, anything they can make, you can make vegan.
Lead image source: Vegan Jackfruit Philly Cheesesteak