by Dan Moore, Deli Manager
When I first applied to work at the Co-op I admit I was more than a little nervous. I knew the Co-op valued workers’ rights, that they believed in environmental responsibility, and that using local products and fostering local businesses were part of their mission and by-laws. I became a member for these reasons, as well as the fact that the produce was the best around. But as a member, I also knew that there was a lot I had to learn if I was going to meet the challenge of running the Deli.
For example, while I knew what it meant to be vegan, I never gave much thought to cooking for one. The first thing I did was look for recipes geared towards vegans and see what was out there. I expected variations on stir fry, salad, and sandwiches. I didn’t expect the huge variety I found, and the number of unfamiliar items mentioned in the recipes. Being unfamiliar with cooking with things like seitan, brown rice syrup, and tofu, I thought I might just go to the store and look for things to try out. After visiting a “regular” grocery store, I realized that being a vegan is no easy task. To be a healthy vegan, you almost have to know how to cook your own food. So, I had to learn how to make my recipes vegan by learning how to use these strange ingredients. Once I did some investigating, and learned where to find seitan in the store, I realized I was psyching myself out for no reason. Cooking vegan was different, but no different than switching from Italian to Chinese. You just need to learn the qualities of the food, the right combinations, and mostly how to substitute. So here’s a quick reference for items you can use to make your favorite recipes vegan.
Packing in the protein
First, you need to know your protein. Meat is a great source of protein, and if you want to be vegan, you have to find a new source. Fortunately, there are a lot of them. Green leafy vegetables, grains, beans and legumes, tofu, and seitan are all good sources of protein. Be careful though; in all of these options the proteins are plant-based. This means that you may be getting about ten percent less than with meat because of the different chemical makeup and the presence of things like fiber—making the protein less digestible. If you’re feeling lethargic, you may not be getting enough.
Finding the flavor
In most meat recipes, the meat supplies fats and texture. It flavors the food when heat causes a reaction between the proteins and sugars present. The presence of fat helps increase the flavor because the molecules that provide flavor and aroma dissolve in the fat molecules during the heating process. If you’re vegan, this isn’t an option. So, how do you get rid of the meat and retain flavor? Simple.
Tofu, seitan, and legumes are filled with water. They act like sponges. Marinate them with your desired flavor and they soak it up. In the Deli, we squeeze or press the tofu and seitan to further the ability to absorb flavor. With the marinated tofu we soak the tofu overnight. The flavoring of spices is readily absorbed into the water inside the food as well, provided you give it time. If you go to a restaurant and order a tofu dish that ends up tasting like a big bowl of white, it’s because they were in a hurry. The other great thing about seitan and tofu is that you can create the right texture. Because of the high water content, freezing tofu substantially changes its “mouth feel,” giving it a chewier texture that I think holds the flavors better. Firm tofu works well crumbled or baked as a meat or cheese substitute like in our lasagna, while silky tofu can replace cream cheese, milk or cream in sauces, or even ice cream. Seitan can be braised, deep fried, baked, or cooked in a pressure cooker. Each gives you a different texture, and it can replace meat in almost any recipe. If you make your own, you can add herbs and spices in the kneading process to affect both flavor and texture as well. You can also slice it thinly to replace beef in stroganoff, spice it up and use it for “wheatballs,” and, as evidenced in the Deli, make a killer vegan chili. One word of caution though; if you are eating wheat-free stay away from seitan. It’s made from high-gluten flour.
Replacing the eggs
Another item you’ll need to learn to substitutions for if you want to eat vegan is eggs. For recipes like quiche or scrambled eggs, tofu is a great substitute. Simply use crumbled firm tofu with turmeric and your favorite herbs and spices. For pies, parfaits or other creamy desserts, use the silken tofu to provide the right texture. If you’re baking I recommend using Egg Replacer. Basically a baking powder that combines tapioca starch and leavening agents, it will help baked goods rise. Since it doesn’t have the moisture of eggs, you should add a little extra oil to your recipe. Another option is flaxmeal mixed with water, which provides the binding qualities of egg whites—although it can bind so well you need to add more liquid here as well. Drawbacks include a slightly bitter aftertaste if you use too much, and its tendency to brown very quickly. Soy lecithin, a veggie version of a fat that occurs naturally in egg yolks as well, is a gluten-free powder can be used in doughs and batters, but should be blended with oil first as it doesn’t dissolve in water. It also creates doughs that are soft, so you may have to decrease the oil called for. None of these options besides the Egg Replacer has the leavening qualities of beaten eggs, so you will also need to add a teaspoon or two of baking powder if you’re not using yeast. Finally, if you’re new at baking vegan, it helps to bake small—like cupcakes or muffins—until you have the hang of it.
Sifting through sweeteners
Sweeteners are also a concern for the vegan cook. As a beginner, I knew honey was out. What I failed to realize is that over half the cane refineries filter the sugar through activated carbon that is of animal origin. Use organically-grown, unbleached sugar or natural sweeteners like date sugar, maple or brown rice syrup, or granular fruit sweetener. Other options include barley malt, stevia, or Sucanat. Most dry alternatives can be substituted in equal amounts for sugar, and the liquids for things like corn syrup or molasses. If you substitute a liquid for dry, reduce the liquid in the recipe by a quarter cup—if the recipe doesn’t call for any liquids add three to five tablespoons of flour for each 3/4 cup of sweetener. Sucanat is slightly less sweet than sugar, while stevia is about 300 times sweeter—so watch how much you use.
Doing the homework
There are other concerns involved besides flavor when deciding to try out a vegan diet. The most important is your health. Changing your diet for any reason is a responsibility, one not to take lightly. Do the homework and find out how it will affect you. A vegan diet can, but doesn’t have to, affect your intake of B12, iron, protein, and Vitamin D among other things. Certain health conditions like anemia make it even more difficult—but not impossible. You can eat very healthily and very well on a vegan diet if you know how make your meal nutritionally complete.
That said, my final rule of thumb for substituting is, “When in doubt, ask.” While I did a lot of research and cooking to learn how to use these items, I learned more from the folks in our Co-op than from anything else. As an owner, a shopper, or member of the community we are here as a resource if you have questions. I may not know the answer, but I learned very quickly that we have a staff that is dedicated and knowledgeable on many topics and eager to help.