Last year, I spent a few months halfheartedly attempting veganism. When I first considered eating that way, one thing came to mind: substitutes. What could I eat that would mimic the taste of my beloved meat and cheese? I went out and bought a wide variety of chik'n nuggets, tempeh, and a whole slew of fake "cheez" products. It never occurred to me that because these highly-processed foods are not natural, consuming them could be less healthy than eating organic meats. They all tasted pretty good, but the lack of variety made me wonder if I could keep being vegan up very much longer. I gave up on the vegan dream, but I also stumbled into a new way of thinking: vegan eating — go figure — is best served with a heaping plate of vegetables, fruits, and other foods from Mother Earth in their natural forms. If you're a carnivore looking to cook vegan this holiday season, keep this idea in mind as your golden rule.
Those attempting to cook vegan for the first time might be tempted to reach for meat substitutes like tofu and tempeh, or dairy fill-ins like Daiya cheese. Unfortunately, many of these substitutes are highly-processed and not necessarily healthier just because they aren't derived from animal products. Chefs and practicing vegans alike agree that the way to create irresistible vegan meals is to work with whole, natural foods potent with vitamins and minerals. Dana DiGregorio, a practicing vegetarian from Scottsville, gave this sage advice: "Stick to the basics; foods that come from the earth. The fall in upstate New York is the best time to get amazing delicious local produce. This food's so good. It doesn't require more than salt and pepper to enjoy."
Chef Brian Van Etten at the Owl House (75 Marshall St., owlhouserochester.com) echoed similar thoughts, adding that meat substitutes can sometimes be tricky to work with at home. One staple of Van Etten's fall cooking that achieves the sweet heartiness we all crave during this time of year is cider-braised mushrooms. Simmer button mushrooms in apple cider on low heat in a covered pot for a warm, tender centerpiece in holiday dishes. He recommends serving these sumptuous babies with a sweet potato mash or crispy quinoa.
In terms of holiday cooking, Van Etten said "No one gives a shit about the turkey anymore. It's all about the sides." Stuffing, mashed potatoes, and every combination of vegetables you can possibly imagine are just a few possible options. And during these colder months, we're lucky to have access to a wide variety of local produce. Carrots, beets, turnips, squashes, pumpkin, leeks, cauliflower, and other fall vegetables are all readily available for you to add to your Christmas dinner dishes. Oh, and Brussels sprouts? They're a thing again, confirms Van Etten. Try roasting them in the oven and mixing them with poached craisins.
So, how to transform these basic ingredients into a delicious vegan feast? Van Etten claims the key to fall foods is sneaking in sweetness. "To me, sweet is the essence of fall," Van Etten says. Maple is the flavor of the season, and dried berries can be poached in wine and brown sugar to plump them up. These little touches help create a balance of sweet and savory in vegetable dishes. To add depth, play around with fall spices; cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, ginger, and allspice can make simple roasted vegetables highly flavorful. Make sure to keep some non-meat proteins in the mix for your vegetarian and vegan friends, too. Try braised or baked beans or crispy glazed tofu. While tofu may seem intimidating to work with to the inexperienced, it can be treated similar to poultry in terms of marinades and glazes. Try wrapping firm or extra-firm tofu in paper towels and pressing it between two heavy books to drain moisture and help sauces stick. If all else fails, Van Etten's secret weapon? Apples. He confirmed he likes to whip up "cider-braised everything," and we all know there's no shortage of apples and apple cider to be found locally this time of year. Roasted or poached apples with cinnamon can serve as a sweet vegan alternative to cookies, pies, or cakes.
If you're new to veganism, one thing you'll want to pay close attention to is making substitutions for some of the most commonly used animal products. A few obvious vegan swaps include tofu for main dish meats, and soy-based Earth Balance for butter. Hanukkah latkes cooked in Earth Balance easily achieve that melt-in-your mouth texture that will leave family members grinning from ear-to-ear. Other substitutions might not seem obvious at first, but make a lot of sense when you think about them. For example, Van Etten suggests adding olive oil to mashed potatoes rather than butter. You'll get the richness you crave from the fat in the oil without the lactose in butter, and olive oil is derived from a natural source. If you're planning a holiday morning brunch, crumbled tofu seamlessly steps in for eggs in any veggie scramble. In savory recipes where eggs serve as a binder, like lasagna, try using breadcrumbs to hold it all together instead. Soy and nut milks are also stars in the vegan diet. Use them in place of dairy milk in recipes, or blend a frozen banana with soy or almond milk, rum, and spices to create imitation eggnog for sipping in front of the Christmas tree.
In baking, fatty coconut oil can step in for butter at a 1:1 ratio, offering many health benefits including increased energy. Perhaps most unexpectedly, you can find an effective substitute for eggs in baking: Applesauce, at a ratio of ¼ cup applesauce for every 1 egg. If you go crazy for cocoa beans, vegan chocolate chips are an alternative. Use these substitutions in your winter holiday cookie recipes to make your sweet treats vegan-friendly. See the recipe below from local blogger Jennifer Morgan (skinnyfattofit.com) for a go-to fall dessert that will please vegans and non-vegans alike.
One needn't look far to find treasures from the earth at an affordable price. The Public Market (280 Union St. N, cityofrochester.gov/publicmarket) is practically a goldmine this time of year. Carrots, rutabagas, and other root vegetables sit prominently on every farm stand, waiting to be simmered into a stew. This and other farmers markets — like the popular South Wedge Farmers Market and the Brighton Farmers Market — are some of the best places to get yummy produce straight from the source. In addition, at Wegmans as well as at Abundance Cooperative Market (62 Marshall St., abundance.coop) and Lori's Natural Foods Center (900 Jefferson Rd., lorisnatural.com) a wide variety of non-dairy milks, coconut oil, and vegan flavorings and sauces are readily available. These are all great additions to your vegan Holiday dishes.
If staying at home isn't your thing, the increasing prominence of veganism has inspired some restaurants to add vegan options to its menu, and has even provoked the emergence of vegetarian and vegan-focused restaurants. Natural Oasis Market (288 Monroe Ave., naturaloasisny.com) is a market and café that focuses on healthy vegan and vegetarian foods, featuring a buffet from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Monday through Saturday. Most recently, a lovely little vegan cafe called The Red Fern opened its doors on the corner of Park and Oxford. The Red Fern offers an entirely vegan menu, including to-die-for vegan pastries and expertly-treated meatless proteins. Van Etten's own menu at the Owl House features a plethora of vegan options, with a focus on whole foods. If you're not into cooking, consider visiting one of these local treasures for a vegan treat during the holidays.
Have any great vegan recipes of your own? Share them with us in the comments, below.
By Jennifer Morgan (skinnyfattofit.com)
1/3 cup oil (you can use coconut oil which works well because it has no taste,
try to keep with an oil that has a faint or no taste at all)
1 cup sugar (I use raw sugar)
1/4 cup flax milk, I use Good Karma brand (you can use soy, almond or whatever pleases you)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract (make sure this is pure vanilla extract, imitation contains caramel coloring which has gluten in it)
1 1/4 cups Bob's Red Mill Gluten Free All Purpose Flour
1 teaspoon of fresh ground ginger
1/4 cup of real maple syrup
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon cardamom
1 teaspoon apple sauce
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 cup canned pumpkin
You can add chocolate chips or walnuts for some crunch-1/2 cup (just check your chocolate chips to make sure they are gluten-free, and if there is butter or milk in them that means they are no longer vegan so in that case you can substitute carob chips). I didn't use any chocolate in my recipe, but hey, put your own spin on it!
1 cup non-dairy butter (EarthBalance is a great gluten-free, vegan brand,
you can also use vegetable shortening but I think a butter taste is better)
4 cups gluten-free confectioners sugar
2 tablespoons of pure vanilla extract
4 tablespoons of flax milk (almond milk, or soy milk)
2 teaspoons of cinnamon
2 tablespoons of real maple syrup
(you can add cocoa powder if you want chocolate frosting 1/2 cup)
Sea salt for topping
Honey to drizzle (some vegans can't decide if honey is vegan or not, so if
you are against it you can replace real honey with Bee Free Honee (beefreehonee.com)
Chocolate or Carob chips to sprinkle on top
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Mix together sugar, oil, vanilla, flax milk, ground ginger, maple syrup. Mix flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, nutmeg, cardamom, and cinnamon, sift in dry ingredients into wet ingredients and mix. Fold in pumpkin and apple sauce and any added ingredients (chocolate, carob, nuts). Pour your mixture into your liners, this should make about 1 pan. Bake for approximately 20 minutes at 350, but use the toothpick trick to make sure.
Mix all ingredients together. If it is too thick add a little non-dairy milk, if it is too thin refrigerate it for 20-30 minutes. Frost your cupcakes, sprinkle on some sea salt and drizzle some honey