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Tuesday, September 25, 2012

In Defence of Veganism (with a strong word against Nut Loaves everywhere).

I've always been amazed at veganism.  I've known a few vegans in my life, and I truly admire their convictions, although I admit I admire their willpower even more.

I respect the vegan diet, and am the first to admit that it can be really healthy and generally better for you than any other similarly restrictive diet... however, it has been my experience that most vegans in fact make this choice for moral reasons, rather than reasons of health.

The theory of veganism is quite sound... however, in practice, the majority of vegans I've seen seem to fall into one of two categories.  Either they end up having incredibly bad diets... consisting almost exclusively of things like french fries, or bread (which, for the record, is not cool); or else they end up overcompensating, in an almost defensive way, for what their diet lacks (and in the process, overlook where their diet excels).  These often end up concocting, in overly-creative, adventurous, and unorthodox ways, such scary abominations which - in a good and pure world - should never have ever been realized... (which, also for the record, is very not cool).

In any case, I think the SYMPTOMS are more than apparent, that there needs to be a reconceptualization of what it means to eat - and cook - vegan.

Now, for my own part, I think it is quite obvious that I am interested in food, in all of its forms.  And - try as I might - I can not exist with my head under a rock, so that means I've most definitely seen, read, heard, and tasted, a variety of vegan foods and menus.  I'm hesitant to use the word 'fad' but veganism has certainly seen a rise in popularity over the last decade.  So, I'm not immune to... let's say... dabbling...

Some time ago, my wife and I decided to jump on the transient bandwagon of a sort of "Vegan Challenge", wherein we and several others, chose to consume only vegan-friendly foods for two weeks.

Now... where everyone else we participated with was frantically scrabbling through vegan cookbooks, scouring vegan websites and blogs, and in general trying to be as pretentiously creative as possible about cooking vegan, I was sitting there just ticking off things in my own culinary repertoire which were inherently without animal products.

To this day, it baffles me that vegans are so interested in creating substitutions for non-vegan dishes, rather than just embracing the real foods which are more than fine on their own.

I'm getting off-track here a little bit, but suffice it to say, I just wanted to mention that while many vegans struggle to make questionably-edible things palatable, (I'm looking at you Nut-Loaf!!!) it is frustrating that many traditional (in some cases, positively ancient) recipes which are inherently vegan, simply get overlooked.

To me it has always been rather simple.  If you choose not to eat, let's say meat, then just don't eat meat.  You don't need to fundamentally change your relationship with food or alter millennia of established culinary tradition.

Don't mistake me, I understand the nutrition restrictions imposed upon a vegan diet, and I am 100% endorsing the inclusion of such nutrients which might be lost (the big ones being of course, protein, iron, and calcium) without consuming meat or dairy.  However, it is my opinion that there are foods out there which work just fine on their own for these nutrients, without needing to be couched, or disguised as something they're not.  What's wrong with a bowl of quinoa instead of rice once in a while, or upping your spinach intake at a meal?  Heck - even a handful of nuts eaten at meal time should be good for a while, no?

Anyway... my own experiences with cooking vegan?

During this two-week foray, I tried a few interesting things... we tried a couple sources of meat 'replacements' which were just plain disgusting... but the crowning jewel in my vegan attempts, was the cashew milk sauce.

I love pasta sauces.  Well, all sauces, really.  So you can imagine I was particularly excited about seeing if cashew milk could indeed live up to the hype I'd heard so much about.

It didn't.

Cashew milk is disgusting.  And while it might LOOK like milk, it tastes nothing even remotely close to it.

Case and point to my argument, here.  Why not just eat cashews for cashews, and when it comes time to make a pasta sauce, just choose a sauce which is naturally without animal products.


Anyway... after only a few meals which were unilateral fails, we stopped trying 'new' vegan recipes from cookbooks and online, and such... and I just employed all the good vegan stuff I already had in my kitchen.

So, out came a lot of grains... couscous, quinoa, whole-grain rice, oats and bran cereals, etc.
And a ton of legumes... beans, lentils, chickpeas, etc.
And let's not overlook a strong emphasis on fruits and vegetables.
My best friend throughout them all, was olive oil, which I found to be absolutely indispensable.

When our friends were all relating their latest experiences trying to mold tofu, or spending hours blending strange veggie concoctions together... I just served up two weeks' worth of good food which, sure we may have had before, but everything was vegan, and everything was delicious.

Now... you might say this means that we weren't exposing ourselves to new things, or trying different ways of cooking... but we did.  We tried many, many things we'd never try otherwise, under other circumstances... but after everything, found that we'd much rather just come back to a good pasta or legume stew, a nice simple salad, or a good hearty soup.

In fact, some of the best meals I made during that 'challenge' were the simplest.

Some lentil and bean chilli sin carne  for example, with some flour tortillas.  I eat this stuff regularly (I might put some greek yogurt or some shredded cheddar on top, at other times, but those are easy omissions).

Another great example, and what I was prompted to make when faced directly with the cashew-milk-pasta-sauce disaster, was just a quick home made cheese-less pesto pasta.

It probably helped IMMENSELY that I'm a big pasta eater already, but I must have made at least a half a dozen pastas in two weeks time.  From complex herb and tomato sauces, to simple garlic olios, they are one of the easiest dishes to make delicious without the addition of animal products.

So, in conclusion, I just want to say - if you've decided to make the awesome life choice to omit animal products from your diet... good for you!  I mean it.  I'm impressed, and a little jealous.

However... please consider your motivations, and - most importantly - take a good hard look at what it is you like to eat, and don't like to eat.

If you happen to be a lazy eater, maybe try harder to incorporate more things in your diet than just potato chips and french fries.  Just because they satisfy the requirements does not mean they're sufficient.  At all.

And, conversely, if you happen to NOT be a lazy eater, and enjoy cooking in the kitchen, I was hoping I could ask a favour, and maybe you could see to it that you do not saturate the cooking world with your insane concocting of bastardized abominations involving tofu or nuts or a thousand and one soy variations?

Just eat normal food.  Oh sure, tofu, soy, and nuts are all 'normal' food, and can be quite good, and good for you, but why try so hard to make them something they're not (I'm looking at YOU Tofurkey!!!) when they're fine on their own, or in accompanying something else.  I make the same argument for any other "forced unholy marriage" of foods, even non-vegan (I'm looking at YOU Turducken!!) ... The bottom line is that I believe foods do not need to be reconstituted, or reconstructed, and that simpler is often better.  I'd much rather - for example - sautĂ© some soft tofu in a bit of garlic and onion, and then toss in some fresh green herbs, than try a myriad of things to attempt (and ultimately fail) to make it taste like meat.  If I wanted it to taste like meat, I'd just eat actual meat.  If I don't want meat (which happens more often than not) I will just not eat anything meat-like (including, here, actual meat).

If you need good ideas on how to do this, try looking up traditional recipes, and if needed, attempt omissions rather than substitutions.

Or you can always drop me a line, as it should be obvious by now, that I'll be happy to offer suggestions!  :)

So... forgive my rant; I just made a vegan spaghetti pomodoro last night, by complete accident, and it got me to thinking about this whole rigmarole...  :D