Going Animal-Product-Free, One Day At a Time
When I decided earlier this yearto attempt to become a vegan, the whys informing my decision were easy. The inhumane treatment of animals in many aspects of the food industry was reason enough for me to try to give up eating meat. In addition to being good for my body, and maybe my soul, eschewing animal products seemed like a good thing to do for the planet. Natural resources are being taxed to levels of depletion, while methane--the noxious gas that blasts out of the humble bovine's backside as it digests its food--contributes to global warming. Add in the energy required to land jet-setting Kobe beef, or Wagyu steaks, or even Chilean sea bass, on menus half a world away and you're left with a trail of Paul Bunyan-sized carbon footprints leading straight to your dinner table.
So the whys were easy. The hows, on the other hand, required more planning than I'd anticipated. I soon learned that whether considering entire meals, recipes, or individual foods, a diet free of animal products was best approached with a spirit of exploration rather than an attempt at substitution.
I started out with realistic goals. Rather than set myself up for failure by overhauling my kitchen completely, I decided to designate one day a week as a meatless, dairy-free day. Tuesday seemed as good as any of its six counterparts, and Vegan Tuesday was born.
Inauguration day for my new way of eating held few surprises. I ate my usual breakfast of brown rice cakes, almond butter, and fruit. It was a good balance of protein and fiber, and not one ounce of animal product came anywhere near my plate.
At lunchtime, I opted for that staple of vegetarians and vegans around the world, tofu. I bought a container of the extra firm variety at the grocery store across the street, took it home, and without dressing it up with side dishes or seasoning, I dug in. I tend to like foods for what they are, not what they can be made into, so slicing off quivering slabs of bean curd and eating them as nature--or at least the packager--intended wasn't much of a challenge. In fact, I enjoyed the texture. But it did feel like I'd taken an easy way out, since I didn't actually cook anything. I decided dinner would be a better test.
Vegetarian chili was on the menu that first night. I perused a few recipes online, but soon decided to simply rely on my instincts. I'd found that some vegan and vegetarian recipes were ruined by the unnecessary presence of an ingredient intended as a meat, or meat by-product, substitute, like strips of seitan in "mock beef and broccoli," or vegetarian "chicken" stock in "chicken-free chicken soup." When I've tried these recipes in the past, the result often tasted like metal, salt, or dirt.
My veggie chili relied on a stock of whole tomatoes, ground ancho and chipotle peppers, as well as some pumpkin seeds that I toasted in the oven. These ingredients gave the finished dish an earthy, smoky flavor. Nothing about the meal's flavor or texture made me think it was lacking in any way. Nor was there the telltale aftertaste of an ingredient used solely for the purpose of replicating meat. I considered my First Vegan Tuesday a success.
Each week I looked forward to the challenge of Tuesday's menu. I broke my rule about substitutions and experimented with altering cream-based recipes, like Indian korma. I'm glad that I did. I made my korma with coconut milk mixed with a paste of garlic, spices, and ground almonds, and poured the mixture over parboiled yams and baked it. It was delicious. The starch from the tubers helped thicken the dish, giving the entire entrée a satisfying mouth-feel.
Of course there have been some mishaps. My unthinking inclusion of honey in a ginger-lime dressing made that day's "vegan" status null and void. "Honey comes from a bee," as one of my vegan friends quickly noted.
The most difficult thing of all to give up on Vegan Tuesdays has been the cream in my coffee. While I am all about allowing foods to be what they're meant to be, soy creamer--regardless of the flavoring added to it--just doesn't make the same cup of coffee as good old half-n-half. My coffee cup is one place where my palate overrides my politics.
I have instead taken a cue from my approach to the rest of my vegan diet. Rather than try to make my coffee vegan by substituting something foreign for something familiar, I have opted to enjoy the richness of a black cuppa joe. It has taken some getting used to, and on some mornings I've kick-started my day with a strong cup of tea instead.
Nearly nine months into my venture, I've had more successes with Vegan Tuesday than failures, enough so that I now have added Vegetarian Thursday into my week's diet. Cheese, glorious cheese, is allowed, as are ice cream, milk chocolate, and half-and-half. On both days, I set my focus on enjoying the foods I've set out to eat, rather than trying to substitute the foods I've chosen to forego. With this approach, nothing has been lost in translation.
812 Park Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21201