Not long ago, I watched two large sheet cakes being delivered for a party of thirty or so people. Both cakes were lovely. Yellow with thick white frosting. A cheerful message of some sort in blue script surrounded by red and yellow was piped onto the top of each cake. Ostensibly, the cakes were identical. Except for one thing.
On the side of one of the boxes written in sharpie was a single word. The word wasn’t “poison” or “danger” or even “stale.” But when the party was over, the other cake was gone and the cake with the note scrawled on the box was missing only two pieces. What word could possibly turn party goers away so dramatically from such a pretty cake?
The word was vegan.
Veganism takes the vegetarian lifestyle one step further. No animal products are used or consumed, including food produced through the exploitation of animals. Dairy is out of bounds as are eggs, honey and refined sugar (I had to look that last one up too. It turns out that many producers use bone char made from the bones of cows to whiten the sugar).
The road to living vegan requires a change in the culinary mindset for the unaccustomed palate. For many that results in a perception that vegan is code for “doesn’t taste as good.”
It doesn’t have to be that way. For the home gardener or those with access to fresh local produce, the journey is well underway.
Gardeners make great vegans.
And with a little consideration, applying vegan principles to everyday eating can be satisfying without that nagging feeling that your dinner plate is selling you short.
There are good alternatives to refined sugar when it comes to satisfying the sweet tooth. maple syrup, agave and stevia are all readily found on the grocery store shelf. Or try growing your own stevia plant in your garden: the leaves are great flavoring for tea or for a vinaigrette. But there are plenty of things growing out in the yard that will bring the sweet just as easily. Berries, melons, or tree fruits like apples and figs all do the job and bring their own flavor profile along for the ride.
For the meat eater, getting enough protein is usually a non-issue. It can be just as easy for the home gardener to keep a protein rich meat-free diet by planting with an eye toward nutrition. Beans, peas and lentils are all protein rich foods that can easily anchor a meal. Sunflower seeds and nuts of all types also fit the bill and can be ground into butters to broaden options in texture and use. Vegan sesame noodles, anyone?
Dairy alternatives are an easy find these days. Soy milk and rice milk have a thriving popularity and oils are an easy alternative to using butter.
But what about cheese? I realize it is hard to cross into that territory without losing a few of you to the “that’s too weird!” factor. There are soy products, but if you want to make cheese at home incorporating ingredients from your own garden, I have to mention agar, a strong starting point for making vegan cheese at home. OK, so it’s a gelatin made from algae. I know. If you can get past that, making your own cheese using nuts and including fresh herbs grown at home won’t quite make you forget that aged stilton. But you won’t miss it quite so much.
For meat eaters like me, some of this requires a leap of faith and some kitchen adventures off the well-traveled path. Unless you have reached a philosophical imperative, there is no need to rush into anything. Sauteed vegetables from the garden? Vegan. Vegetable soup? Cucumber salad? French fries? Also vegan. It doesn’t take much to get started, and those veggies you have tended to with such vigilance out in the garden get a chance to shine. Dishes like stuffed peppers or zucchini lasagne require little tweaking to meet that vegan criteria.
Fresh fruit is an easy choice when dessert rolls around, but baked goods like cakes, cookies and pies are well within reach without sacrifice. A pumpkin pie prepared with a crust of ground almonds continues to be a yearly request at my Thanksgiving table.
Yet somehow the best compliment a vegan cook is still likely to hear is, “Really? It doesn’t taste vegan.”