The Secret to Making Vegan Cuisine That Carnivores Will Love
For most of my culinary career, I believed that vegan food was boring and I avoided it at all costs. How could a meal that is devoid of cheese, milk, shrimp or pork be delicious?! I would embrace vegetarian cooking, but not entirely vegan. However, when health issues forced my family to change the way we ate, I had to start cooking vegan. It wasn’t easy. I struggled tremendously and although I’ve been cooking plant-based meals for a couple of years now, I only recently became one with vegan cuisine. It was like something in my head clicked and I finally realized how to get my meatball-loving father—and the rest of my carnivore family members—to enjoy vegan food. Wondering how you can do the same? Here’s the secret to making vegan food that diehard bacon eaters will love.
There’s a stigma that’s often associated with vegan cuisine. Many people—myself included—think that it’s boring or gross. The first step to enjoying vegan cuisine is to change this way of thinking. Remove the negative connotation from your brain. Vegan does not equal bad! If you think it’s boring, it will be boring. However, if you think it’s delicious, and do your best to make it so, it will be delicious! Tofu and nutritional yeast are not as familiar as meat and cream, so it might be scary at first, but once you start experimenting with vegan ingredients, you’ll get the hang of things.
More and more people are embracing a plant-based lifestyle, so don’t think of vegan negatively. Instead think of it as a positive way to be more healthy. In the March issue of Food & Wine magazine, the editor-in-chief, Dana Cowin, says that she’s embarrassed that she missed the vegan trend. “About 10 years ago, I was at a culinary school giving a talk and afterward some brave person in the front row asked, ‘So do you publish any vegan recipes?’ And I said, ‘No. We’ve just never found any vegan recipes that we like.”
When I first started cooking vegan food, I spent hours searching for the perfect recipes. The trouble is many of my reliable sources for recipes, including the aforementioned Food & Wine magazine, didn’t have very many good vegan recipes. Then I decided to take a different approach. What if I used the recipes that I always used, but figured out a way to make them meat and dairy free? For example, when I wanted to make vegan sloppy joes, I used Emeril’s recipe. I substituted al dente lentils for the ground beef. And Bam!—all of a sudden everyone was devouring the sloppy joes—my dad couldn’t get enough of them.
That’s when I realized the seasoning is more important than the protein. If you can mimic the flavors of a certain dish, and use a vegan ingredient that’s texturally similar to the protein, you’ll end up with dishes that carnivores will love. It’s all about the seasoning. Another awesome example of this concept is cauliflower buffalo wings. When deep fried, the cauliflower ends up with the same meaty texture as chicken. Toss it in a classic buffalo wing sauce and meat lovers won’t realize that they aren’t eating wings. If you think about it, when you eat wings, you don’t want the flavor of chicken, you want the flavor of the sauce.
Beans have become a staple. Every type: lentils, pinto, black, white, garbanzo—can all be used in different ways. Whole beans add heft to salads and pasta dishes. Pureed, they add flavor and depth to sauces and can be used to thicken dishes. Cook with both canned and dried beans. Just remember to soak them overnight! Get creative with them and use as you would a protein.
If you want to make a vegan pizza or lasagna, to truly mimic the flavors of the cheesy originals, invest in vegan specialty ingredients. Kite Hill is a sensational producer of vegan cheese. They make a cream cheese, soft-ripened, and ricotta. Taste the ricotta in a side by side tasting with real ricotta and you won’t be able to tell the difference. While they are a little expensive, if you want to splurge and make a memorable vegan lasagna, use Kite Hill cheese.
Vegan cuisine is built off of fresh vegetables and fruits, but you’ve also got to have a pantry filled with vegan ingredients. The aforementioned beans are crucial as are grains (quinoa, brown rice, farro, etc.), and nuts. Tofu and tempeh are excellent sources of protein. Vegetable stock, nutritional yeast, coconut oil, seeds (flax, pumpkin, sesame), tahini, whole wheat lavash, whole wheat pasta, and vinegar are other pantry staples. Flavoring agents like salsa, capers, liquid smoke, Dijon mustard, miso, harissa, hummus, hot sauce, and tamari are good to have on hand. Fresh herbs are essential, too.
Proteins are filled with fat and fat is filled with flavor. When you’re not cooking with protein, you have to build in layers of flavor other ways. Caramelize onions, grill asparagus, and roast squash. Combine these three vegetables with Israeli couscous and fresh mint and you’ll get a dish that’s packed with sweet and smokey flavors. Enhance a store bought vegetable stock by simmering it with vegetable scraps, then use this to make your black bean chili. Spices are your new best friends! Use the flavoring agents listed above to add a punch of seasoning to sauces and soups.
To make vegan dishes more interesting, cook vegetables multiple ways and then incorporate them into the dish. For example, say you want to make a creamy mushroom pasta dish. Start by using several different types of mushroom: cremini, shiitake, Portabello, and button. Then cook them in different ways. Grill the Portabello, roast the shiitakes, and sauté the cremini and button mushrooms in oil. Using different cooking techniques builds flavor. Combine the mushrooms with Kite Hill’s ricotta, pasta, and fresh parsley and you’ll enjoy a meaty and scrumptious meal that you would never know is vegan.
Bowls should be on your dinner menu twice weekly. There’s countless recipes online, but look in your fridge and use what you have on hand to make a delicious bowl. Build a bowls flavor around a certain type of cuisine: Mexican, Asian, Italian, Moroccan.
Brown rice, roasted sweet potatoes, pinto beans, grilled green onions, black olives, crushed tortilla chips, and salsa is a great Tex-Mex bowl. Combine grilled broccoli, tempeh sautéed in the same seasonings as traditional broccoli beef, red peppers, wilted spinach, sesame seeds, and white rice for an Asian bowl. Farro, white beans, grilled kale, fresh tomatoes, pan-fried eggplant coated in panko, and pesto is a great Italian-inspired bowl. Head to Morocco with couscous, garbanzo bean, roasted carrot, green leaf lettuce, pine nut bowl drizzled with a cilantro-lime tahini. A good bowl has crunchy, sweet, hearty, and green components. Avocado, cucumber, beets, radishes, and dried seaweed are great bowl ingredients.
Since there is the negative connotation that’s sometimes associated with vegan food, remove the word vegan from the dish’s name. At a tailgate last fall, I made an entirely vegan menu. Only when the vegan spinach dip was half gone did I tell my guests that it was vegan. Nobody knew! This is a great way to get carnivores to try vegan food. On Christmas I made a huge vegan lasagna and didn’t tell any of my extended family it was vegan until after dinner. Everyone loved it and nobody realized it was vegan.
Shop some of my favorite vegan cookbooks below.
Do you cook vegan? What are your secrets?