No one, I believe, becomes a vegan for the food. It’s not that vegans don’t eat well, but that most vegetarians don’t have the willpower to give up everything animal.
If you’re a meat eater, you probably think it sounds challenging enough to say goodbye to your rotisserie chicken and spicy tuna rolls. But imagine you’ve already committed to a life without steak dinners or bacon breakfasts. Now, try to imagine a life without cheese pizza.
For many vegetarians, cheese is the deal-breaker. It doesn’t matter how many times we tell ourselves that cow’s milk is for baby cows, or that the cheddar on our macaroni was once inside of a cow. We just can’t stop eating it.
My year as a vegan was undone by a Greek salad. The friend who had ordered it got tired of me staring at the cubes of feta on her plate. “Just eat it,” she said, and pushed her plate toward me. And I did.
Vegans are stronger. Vegans eat roasted-vegetable pizza, wear vinyl shoes, and check the ingredient lists on cosmetics for carmine (a red pigment made from crushed beetles). Living this way, say committed vegans, is not so difficult. And they’re writing heaps of cookbooks to show us how.
Any major bookstore now has at least one shelf dedicated to vegan cookbooks. At the university bookstore near my home, I counted 32 books explaining how to live sans animal products, including an Idiot’s Guide to Vegan Living. I found ethnic cookbooks, dessert cookbooks, raw-food cookbooks, cookbooks for students (or the impatient), cookbooks for vegans cooking with their children, and a cookbook co-written by the pop musician Moby featuring recipes from Teany, his Greenwich Village tea shop.
Perhaps the most useful are the vegan-lifestyle cookbooks, like Sarah Kramer’s La Dolce Vegan! Kramer says she wants to make veganism “fun, accessible, tasty, and effortless.” She has recipes for every meal of the day, instructions for mixing up your own earth-friendly cleaning products, and ideas for craft projects. (Turn your old toothbrush into a bracelet! Make a sewing dummy out of duct tape!) Her recipes are simple — most take just 30 minutes — and you won’t have to restock your entire pantry, since no recipe requires anything more exotic than soy milk or nutritional yeast.
Few restaurants cater to vegans, who must learn to fend for themselves. Some vegans are better at this than others; I have one friend whose vegan diet consists mainly of cold cereal and frozen faux-meat patties. Kramer encourages us to avoid this route. Instead — perhaps knowing that many people learning to cook vegan food are really learning to cook for the first time — she gives plenty of basic cooking tips, such as thorough instructions for the cook boiling her first pot of rice (no stirring!) or baking her first cake (don’t stick a wet spoon in your baking powder!).
Pre-packaged vegan food can be expensive, a problem Kramer addresses in the chapter “Faux Fare” by offering recipes for vegan staples. Seitan, a meat substitute made from vital wheat gluten, can be boiled in broth to taste something like fish, chicken, turkey, ham, or beef. Tofu “whipped cream” introduces the intrepid vegan chef to agar agar, a gelatin made from red algae. Vegan marshmallows may be more of a challenge, but they’re also strangely satisfying; making your own marshmallows is kind of like making your own paper, or knitting your own socks.
My only problem with Kramer’s cookbook is that it has no pictures, or rather, no pictures of the recipes. Instead, the book is full of pictures of Kramer, snuggling with her dog, getting tattooed, swimming, riding her scooter, posing like a pin-up girl, hangin’ with her friends, and generally suggesting, “We’re vegan, and look how much fun we’re having!” Kramer’s photos might inspire me to wear more dark lipstick, but pictures of food would be more likely to inspire me to cook.
For a more satisfying visual feast, check out Isa Chandra Moskowitz’s Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World (co-written with Terry Hope Romero). Here we have glossy cupcakes, piped towers of vegan buttercream frosting, fresh berries, and twinkling sugar sprinkles. Some of these cupcakes are very fancy, with marzipan flowers or cream filling, but don’t be intimidated. This book is perfect for the novice baker, with exhaustive explanations of ingredients, tools, and techniques, and a troubleshooting section for sunken cupcakes and curdled frosting.
Vegan baking requires some ingenuity. Eggs and butter do a lot for baked goods. They contribute to a cake’s volume, moisture, flavor, texture and color. How do you subvert the age-old laws of food chemistry? Simple: Baking soda and vinegar make the cake rise, and margarine or canola oil keep it moist. You might miss the taste of butter, but with all the sugar in a cupcake, you’ll never taste the soy.
The luscious-looking frosting is more problematic. Whether or not you enjoy this confection depends on your ability to take a big bite of sweetened vegetable shortening and think, “Mmmm! That tastes good!” I don’t mind a smear of this frosting on my cupcake, but a bite on its own is not appealing. Even high-quality non-hydrogenated shortening leaves a slippery coating on the inside of my mouth and reminds me of cheap grocery-store cakes at childhood birthday parties.
For picky types like me, Moskowitz and Romero concocted a number of frosting recipes that don’t require shortening. These include tofu chocolate mousse, vegan cream-cheese frosting, and other toppings thickened with agar agar and arrowroot. The blueberry mousse recipe is more challenging and time-consuming than the fluffy buttercream, but the flavor is worth the trouble.
But what about the cheese? Even with my faux ham and cupcakes, will I ever stop craving grilled cheese sandwiches? Kramer addresses this question in a list of common complaints she has heard from former vegans. “I miss cheese” and “I miss macaroni and cheese” are given separate entries, which leads me to believe that I’m not the only one with a cheese problem. Kramer admits that no cheese substitute is going to taste like the stuff from the dairy, but she reminds us that we’re doing this for the cows. If you’re willing to suffer a little, the cows won’t have to.
Seattle writer Zena Chew, a former vegan, now keeps a panini grill under her desk at work so she can have a grilled cheese sandwich whenever she likes.
Culinate props open and ponders cookbooks, nonfiction, memoirs, and other books about food.
Want more? Comb the archives.
Change in our kitchens
Reflections on cooking — and a career that’s based largely at the stove.
Flatbreads from around the continent
Beyond a supporting role
The great Sicilian-Neapolitan kitchen rivalry