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Of the many different diets out there, many people consider a vegan way of eating to be the strictest. The blandest. The most joyless. It’s not true, of course. But why do they have that idea?
Because most carnivores can’t imagine enjoying a meal without meat.
But meat — and other nonvegan foods like poultry, fish, eggs, dairy, and honey — isn’t what makes a dish taste great. It’s texture, fat, acid, and umami. (Umami is the savory, meaty taste you get from foods like mushrooms, tomatoes, and soy sauce.)
“I try to always use those elements,” says Ryan Toll, co-owner and head chef of The Wild Cow, a vegan restaurant in Nashville. “What makes good vegan food is what makes good food in general.”
You don’t need meat, but you do need protein. Among the many things it does for you, protein is satisfying and keeps you from rooting around in the fridge an hour after your last meal.
Without animal protein, vegans have to be intentional about getting the recommended amounts — about 7 grams for every 20 pounds of body weight a day — in other ways.
“There are all kinds of high-protein vegan products,” says Kathleen Zelman, RDN, MPH, host of the True Health Revealed podcast and former nutrition director at WebMD. “Quinoa has protein. Legumes, seeds, and nuts are a good source. Vegetables have protein. Even fruit has a very small amount.”
There are also many high-protein meat replacement products, and they have their place, but they also tend to be highly processed.
The other advantage of focusing on protein sources like beans, lentils, seeds, nuts, whole grains, and vegetables is that they’re high in fiber.
“Fiber fills you up and leaves less room for the extras,” says Zelman, who created the recipes below. A high-fiber diet is also good for the “good bacteria” in your gut.
Think of a tomato, red and ripe, fresh from the farmers market in July. Now think of a tomato, small and pale, on the produce shelf in December. Which one do you think has the most mineral and nutrient content? Which one do you think tastes better?
No matter what you eat, the quality of ingredients is what takes food to the next level.
“One myth about vegan food is that it’s boring, but that may be the case if you’re using low-quality conventional ingredients that don’t have a lot to offer,” Toll says.
He grew up eating and cooking meat and transferred those techniques to the vegan food he cooks at home and his restaurant. “We use produce from a biodynamic farm. When you eat one of their tomatoes, it’s the best you’ve ever had because it wasn’t artificially ripened or transported hundreds or thousands of miles.”
Keep it simple and make it substantial. No one wants a sad side salad or bland bowl of pasta while others are enjoying a more interesting meal.
Steering clear of mayo, honey, chicken or beef broth, focus on beans, chickpeas, or a hearty vegetable like mushrooms.
“People are pretty familiar with how to grill a chicken or cook a steak, but maybe not how to prepare mushrooms. If they’re cooked in the right way, they can have all the same elements that meat would,” Toll says. “Most seasonings and marinades you’d use for meat are already vegan. Use them on vegetables instead to get the same flavor.”
This applies to many different ethnic cooking styles:
Or try one of these recipes that hit all the notes of texture, fat, acid, and umami. They’re familiar, relatable, and sure to please a crowd of carnivores.
This create-your-own bruschetta recipe ups the game — and the plant protein content — with the addition of cannellini beans. Capers supply that salty pop of flavor and the portobellos give it both heartiness and umami.
Whisk together oil, vinegar, garlic, and pepper in a medium-size bowl. Toss beans, mushroom, tomatoes, and capers in the dressing. Serve in a bowl along with whole grain toasted bread to make your own bruschetta.
Servings: 6 (2 slices toast and 1/3 cup bean mixture)
Hemp seeds are the easiest way to add plant protein to a vegan dish, and a little color and texture as well. You don’t have to prep or cook them, just shake them on at the end. Use this as a filling breakfast, lunch, snack, or vegan appetizer for a crowd.
Whisk together the lime juice, zest, olive oil, honey, salt, and pepper. Toss with arugula and set aside.
In a small bowl, smash the chickpeas into a chunky mash and spread evenly on all four toast. Top toast with slices of avocado and arugula salad. Garnish with hemp seeds and crushed red pepper.
Yield: 4 servings (1 slice toast, ½ cup mashed chickpeas, ¼ avocado and ½ cup arugula)
To feel full and satisfied, different elements are important, especially in a salad.
“I love farro. It’s got a good chew to it,” Zelman says. “It’s a whole grain, though it’s not gluten-free. I make a big batch and pair it with almost anything, hot or cold.”
Heat the oven to 400 F. Place beets wrapped in foil on a baking sheet and roast until tender, about 45 minutes. Peel and chop beets when cooled.
In a small pot, bring 2 ½ cups water to a boil over high heat; add farro; reduce heat, simmer uncovered until tender, about 15 minutes; drain well and cool.
When cooled, combine farro, corn, beets, cherries, almonds, basil, and spinach in a large bowl.
Whisk together all ingredients for vinaigrette. Toss salad with vinaigrette and serve immediately.
What’s the difference between a great vegan chili and a bowl of beans and spices? A variety of textures and flavors. Sweet potato adds subtle sweetness and body, plus beta-carotene and vitamin A.
In a large Dutch oven, heat oil over medium-high heat. Add garlic, jalapeno, onion, and red pepper and sauté 4-5 minutes until vegetables are soft; add chili powder, cumin, and pepper, stirring occasionally until combined.
Add sweet potato, tomatoes, beans, and vegetable stock; reduce heat and simmer until the sweet potato is tender, 30-40 minutes. Add additional stock or water for desired consistency.
Garnish with cilantro, avocado, soy yogurt, and plant-based cheese.
As desserts go, this one is pretty healthy with nuts, fiber, protein, fruit, and yumminess,” Zelman says of this warm dish topped with nutty granola. “If it’s not delicious, you’re not going to eat it, no matter how good it is for you.”
This crisp stands alone with or without ice cream or whipped cream, but feel free to add a vegan version of either on the side.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Spray a 9×13-inch pan. In a large bowl, combine apples, vanilla, ¼ cup brown sugar, lemon zest, ½ teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon spice powder, and cornstarch. Mix to coat apples. Pour into pan.
For topping, combine oats, flour, and remaining brown sugar in a large bowl. Cut in plant-based butter with a pastry cutter or two forks until evenly distributed. Add nuts, wheat germ, ½ teaspoon salt, and 1 teaspoon spice powder; spoon over fruit to cover.
Bake at 325 degrees for about 45 minutes or until edges are bubbling and topping is golden brown.
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