Over the years my recipes have developed a very definite theme: veganizing favorite, familiar foods. Since I became vegan, I have been introduced to more new foods than I could list and I love that my palate has evolved so much. Still, I often crave the foods I used to eat. Of course, I miss the tastes of all my old favorites but there are also foods that I associate with people, places and experiences. These foods are a part of my life’s history. This leaves me with three choices: one, I can give into those cravings and eat those foods; two, I can forego those foods and feel deprived or cut off from a huge part of my past; or three, I can figure out how to veganize those dishes so I can satisfy my cravings but stay true to my values. For me, only one of these choices makes any sense.
That’s why I have learned how to make vegan versions of pretty much every dish I ever loved. I get to re-experience the feelings and memories of childhood favorites, dishes my mother made and the foods I loved to order in restaurants. It’s easy to learn how to veganize any dish you loved and have it still be delicious and satisfying. Because if you can have the foods you grew up with, the foods you always loved, the foods you crave in a healthier and compassionate way, why wouldn’t you?
1. Read Recipes Through a Vegan Lens
I am constantly reading recipes and cookbooks even though most of the time, they are not vegan to start with. If I want to come up with a vegan version of a favorite food, I have to start with the original recipe. Choose a recipe for the dish you want to recreate and read through it with a red pen. Every time you see an animal product, circle it. Circle any meat, fish, eggs, milk, cheese, butter, honey, and gelatin in the recipe. These are the ingredients that need to be replaced with plant-based versions.
2. Know Your Substitutions
Once you have a list of the animal ingredients that need to be replaced, think about what plant-based foods can used in the dish. Write down a plant-based substitution for each of the ingredients you circled. For instance, if the recipe uses chicken, pork or beef, cross that out and write down “tofu” or “seitan” or “jackfruit.” Read about the 10 Vegetables that Can Substitute for Meat. If the recipe uses fish, jot down “tempeh” or “chickpeas.” See How to Make Vegan Seafood without the Fish for ideas. Replace any milk or butter with non-dairy milk and vegan butter or coconut oil. You can easily live without cheese when you have delicious vegan versions of cheese. Does the recipe say you need eggs? Guess what, you don’t. Learn How to Cook and Bake Without Eggs and How to Replace Eggs in All Your Favorite Dishes. Leave the bees alone and use any of these 5 Best Alternatives to Honey. There is a vegan way to substitute almost every food. For a quick reference, see 10 Food Substitutions Every Plant-Based Eater Should Know. Looking at recipes with appropriate swap-outs in mind lets me believe that anything any chef makes, I can make vegan.
3. Think About Texture and Flavor
Now that you know what you want to make and what ingredients you will use to make it, how do you make it taste like the original recipe? It’s all about texture and flavor. Think about it: 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. 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. Read 7 Tips to Make the Perfect Tofu Dish. 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. Check out my 5 Tips for Making Amazing Tempeh Dishes. 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. Read How to Make Perfect Seitan for tips and recipes. A common mistake people make with vegan foods is to NOT treat them 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. Mushrooms and jackfruit, when cooked with the right ingredients, can make delicious vegan French Dip Sandwiches and Philly Cheesesteaks.
4. Buy It Or Make It
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.
5. Let’s Veganize a Recipe
One of the most popular recipes on my blog is my vegan and gluten-free version of The Pioneer Woman, Ree Drummond’s Chicken-Fried Steak with White Gravy and Creamy Mashed Potatoes. The original recipes contain 3 lbs. of meat, 5 1/2 cups of whole milk, 2 eggs, 1 cup of heavy cream, 8 oz. of cream cheese, 17 Tbs. of butter, and 1/4 cup of grease leftover from cooking the steaks. Aack! These dishes are probably amazingly delicious but let’s make vegan version of them. Let’s start with the Creamy Mashed Potatoes, which typically contain heavy cream, butter and cream cheese. We can make an equally delicious side dish but lighter and plant-based. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray a baking dish with cooking oil (or grease it with an oiled piece of paper towel). Cut 2 -3 lbs. Yukon gold potatoes into even chunks so they will all have the same cooking time. Put them into a large saucepan, fill with cold water, and add some kosher salt. Cover and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Uncover, lower the heat and let cook until the potatoes are fork-tender, about 20 minutes. Drain the potatoes into a colander and return them to the hot pot. Mash the potatoes over low heat and then turn off the heat. We will swap out the cream cheese for vegan cream cheese and trade both the heavy cream and butter for non-dairy milk. Add 2 Tbs. vegan cream cheese, 1/2 cup non-dairy milk or cream, ½ tsp. garlic powder, ½ tsp. dried dill, 1 tsp. kosher salt, ½ tsp. black pepper and 3 chopped scallions and mix it well. Transfer the potatoes to an oiled baking dish. Put a few drops of oil (or some pats of vegan butter) on the top of the potatoes. This will help them brown. Bake until golden-brown, 20- 30 minutes. While the potatoes are in the oven, let’s move on to the steak. First, decide what to use for the steak. I chose tofu but you can also use tempeh, seitan or you can make this with vegetables such as Portobello mushrooms or even cauliflower steak. To make “Chicken-Fried” Tofu Steak: cut a block of extra-firm tofu that has been pressed and drained into slices. If you want thin steaks, you can cut the block in half width-wise, and then cut each half into 4 thin slices. If you want thicker steaks, cut each half into 3 slices. If you want really big steaks, you can just cut the whole block of tofu into 4 slices. Sprinkle each piece of tofu with salt and pepper. In the original recipe, the steak is chicken-fried which means it is dredged and battered in a milk/egg dip and seasoned flour before being fried.
We will substitute the milk by using non-dairy milk and the eggs by making a flax gel. Mix 1/3 cup warm water with 2 Tbs. ground flaxseed in a cup or small bowl. Let sit for 10 minutes until it thickens. Put 1 cup non-dairy milk into a shallow bowl. Add the thickened flaxseed to the milk and stir. In another shallow bowl or dish, combine 2 cups chickpea flour with 1 tsp. garlic powder, 1 tsp. dried oregano, 1 tsp. ground cumin, 1 tsp. paprika, 1 tsp. onion powder, 1 tsp. kosher salt and ½ tsp. black pepper.
Have a clean plate ready to receive the breaded tofu steaks. Working with one slice of tofu at a time, dip it into the flour mixture. Turn to coat. Shake off any excess flour and dip the tofu into the milk/flaxseed mixture. Turn to coat. Finally, dip it back into the flour again and turn to coat. Place the breaded slice of tofu onto the clean plate. Repeat with the rest of the tofu. Preheat the oven to 200 degrees. Heat 2 Tbs. oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Depending on the size of your skillet, you may need to cook the tofu in batches. Don’t crowd the pan or the tofu will not get browned and crispy. You know the oil is hot enough when you sprinkle a bit of flour into the oil and it sizzles. Cook the tofu until it gets golden brown, about 4 minutes. Carefully flip the tofu steaks and cook the other side.
The second side usually cooks faster than the first side. Transfer the tofu steaks to a baking sheet topped with a cooling rack or an oven-safe platter and put in the oven to keep warm while you make the rest of the meal. Last but not least, we need to make the White Gravy. Instead of the 4 cups of whole milk used in the original recipe, we will use 3 cups non-dairy milk and one cup broth. In the same skillet where you fried the tofu steaks, heat 2 Tbs. oil or vegan butter over medium-high heat. Add 1/3 cup chickpea flour and whisk for about a minute or two. You want the flour to cook so the gravy doesn’t taste like paste. The roux should be a golden color. Pour 3 cups non-dairy milk into the pan, slowly, while whisking constantly. Whisk in 1 cup of low-sodium vegetable broth next. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Continue whisking until the gravy is smooth and thick, about 5 minutes. If it gets too thick, add more milk or broth. Taste for seasoning. Serve the tofu steaks next to a side of mashed potatoes. Top both with the gravy. Have it with some salad on the side.
There you go, we veganized the entire meal. My “Chicken-Fried” Tofu Steaks and Creamy Mashed Potatoes with White Gravy uses 4 1/2 cups of non-dairy milk, no eggs, no cream, 2 Tbs. of non-dairy cream cheese, and 2 Tbs. of vegan butter (which is optional). So it’s a little lighter but believe me, it’s not missing any of the flavor. Best of all, no animals were harmed in the making of this meal. 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.
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In text image sources: Rhea Parsons
Lead image source: ‘Chicken’ and Waffles