So, how’s the vegan thing going?

Tuscan Bean Soup

Tuscan Bean Soup

Regular readers will know that this year I “went” vegan for Lent.  This is not entirely new for me – I tried a vegan challenge 4 years ago and, at the end of it, decided that I didn’t want to “be” a vegan.  You can read why here.

Well, it’s now April 24th, over a week past Easter Sunday and everybody I meet asks “So, how’s the vegan thing going?”

Honestly?  I woke up on Easter Sunday without craving fish or meat or even cheese – but I did have a little happy spot in my heart when I realised that I could have a proper, uncompromisingly good, cup of coffee.  I told the waiter at a local cafe that I hadn’t had a coffee I really enjoyed for 40 days – he took the responsibility very seriously and brought me a lovingly crafted flat white which I enjoyed in the cafe garden in the spring sunshine with a puppy on my knee – I tell you, this is the stuff that adverts are made of.

 

Sweet potato and coconut dhal

So what has changed in the last 4 years?

There are more vegans out there now – apparently over half a million in the UK (up from 150,000 ten years ago) – around half of whom are in the 15-35 age group so the numbers are likely to continue to grow.  This increase in numbers has had a knock on effect on the availability of vegan food.  I live in a largish village in Cornwall- it’s a holiday destination so there are lots of places to eat and vegans can be accommodated in most of them.  There are a number of cafés where I can have a choice of plant milks, vegan cakes, brunch or lunch items.  Even the more traditional pubs can accommodate vegans if asked to.

If I go a little further into Truro (Cornwall’s only city) or Falmouth the choice is massively increased with shops, cafés and restaurants catering exclusively for vegans or for vegan/vegetarians.  I have eaten at a couple of chain restaurants who have specific, if somewhat uninspired, vegan menus (it’s amazing how many variations of falafel and avocado there are!). I have also eaten at a really lovely little vegan restaurant with a small but creative menu and desserts to die for.  In general, eating out as a vegan has never been easier.

Even snacking on the go is easier now.  Most supermarkets carry a wide range of fruit/cereal bars, the “sandwich” section is likely to have falafel wraps, hummus and crudités, salads full of couscous/pulses/roast vegetables etc. as well as snack packs of olives or bags of vegan “crisps”.

In addition, I had fun discovering “accidentally vegan” foods.  Foods which are not aimed at the vegan market but which, never the less, contain no animal products.  Just Google “accidentally vegan” and you will find a number of sites which give you permission to eat all sorts of things like crumpets (FTW) or original hobnobs.  Even buying vegan wine is easier now as producers/retailers are improving their labelling.

I am still highly disappointed by the number of vegan products (e.g. some dairy-free spreads, peanut butter etc.) that use palm oil as a substitute for animal products.  I actually have a bigger problem with the destruction of habitat which is bringing a whole species (orang utans) dangerously close to extinction than I do with eating butter.  I think some lobbying is required.

Vegan Festival

Cornwall Vegan Festival

As the number of vegans increases so the image of the hard-core, hippy activist is challenged – vegans come from all walks of life.  This weekend I went to a vegan festival  at Mount Pleasant Eco Park,  just five miles from my home.  It is fair to say that there were more Indian print skirts around than you would find in an average Tesco on a Saturday afternoon and (of course) there was a stall issuing leaflets / membership of organisations promoting a vegan lifestyle, but it would be wrong to suggest that this was the whole picture.  I spoke to a number of non-vegans who were there because they were curious or just want to eat less meat and I spoke to vegans who I know spend their week days suited and booted in the corporate world.  A vegan lifestyle is definitely becoming more mainstream and more accessible.

Of course there are still vegans out there who think that you can bully and shame people into changing their behaviour and I still resist that kind of judgemental activism.  I think people should be aware of where their food comes from and I genuinely believe that, for most of us, the truth lies somewhere between the photographs promoting a farming idyll where every lamb is hand reared with love and the bloody, violent photographs of abused animals and overcrowded factory farming.  If you eat meat/dairy you have a responsibility to know where it comes from and to choose food from sustainable and responsible sources and this is not too difficult to do.

The vegan festival was also a great opportunity to try some more processed vegan food.  I still fundamentally dislike vegan “meats” – if I want to replicate the flavour of chorizo in a recipe I will just add smoked paprika; the texture and flavour does nothing for me.  I also tried some vegan “cheeses”; there was a blue cheese which Martin quite liked but which just tasted like mouldy vinegar to me, a slightly rubbery cheddar type cheese which tasted like a very, very mild cheddar – not a bad substitute but I wouldn’t buy mild cheddar either so not for me.  I did buy some vegan “feta” which tasted quite nice and had a feta like texture.  I used this in a spanakopita recipe (to follow) so you can read more about it there.

Basically, when I can choose from the full range of foods I rarely choose processed products – I just don’t like them much, the same seems to be true of vegan foods.  You might feel differently so don’t take my word for it – give them a try.

Buddha Bowl at The Cantina

Buddha Bowl at The Cantina

We also bought some vegan desserts from Wildebeest to take home – we bought 3 between the two of us because we couldn’t decide and they were all delicious.  Then we had lunch in the Cantina – a fantastic communal space where we chatted to friends over buddha bowls full of tasty goodness (I need their recipe for tapenade – it was amazing).  After lunch we chatted to Joceline from the Little Green Vegan Bakery who had almost sold out – which was good for us as there is only so much sugar you can eat in a day!

All in all it was a great little festival and it was packed 3 deep at every stall so I suspect it will be repeated!  If you are curious about a vegan lifestyle then this is the place for you.

So where does that leave me?

Last time I did this I said I would aim for a 70% plant based diet and that I would not appropriate the term vegan because it means so much more than just not-eating-animal-products.  For the most part I kept to this; we stopped eating meat at home (unless we had visitors), ate sustainably sourced fish once or twice a week and ate plant based /vegetarian meals in between although, I admit that the amount of dairy has gradually increased over time (cheeese!).

The reason for repeating the challenge was, as I said at the beginning, because I had been feeling a little low; having an energy dip and was lacking in motivation.  Last time I did this I found that a plant based diet left me feeling energised and generally happier.

This time I haven’t had such a profound response but I suspect that there are two reasons for this:  Firstly, it isn’t such a drastic change in diet this time – I eat less animal products now than I did four years ago anyway.  Secondly, my reduced energy is a function of an on-going health problem and 40 days of a vegan diet isn’t going to solve that.

However, the challenge has made me look up and think about what I am eating and in that sense it has been a great success.  I have re-engaged with myself and the way I fuel my body, every single thing I have eaten has been planned (even cake) and I have put more effort into being creative and into ensuring I have a reasonable balance of nutrients.  I may not have solved my energy issues but I can take credit for not making them any worse.

I am going to push the boundaries and challenge myself to eat an 80% plant based diet from now on.  I have increased my food repertoire and have realised that I don’t necessarily have to buy meat just because we have visitors – my daughter and my sister came to stay during Lent and they both enjoyed the vegan food I cooked for them and my sister was very happy to eat out at a vegan restaurant.

My five year old granddaughter is a different issue.  I was on grandmother (nonny) duties for a week over the Easter holidays so I spent a lot of time with her (and no time blogging) and I am still working on vegan dishes (beyond beans on toast/peanut butter sandwiches) that she will eat as she is going through a fussy phase about food in general.  I confess that eggs and fish fingers made their way into the house that week!

So, here I am, still not a vegan, not even a vegetarian but with a strong focus on doing my bit to prevent the environmental destruction caused by over farming and excessive live-stock production.  We don’t all need to be vegan but if we all made an effort to reduce our consumption of animal products the environmental impact would be considerable.  I guess you could say at 80% that I am engaging in a pareto principle plant based lifestyle and, do you know what?  That’s good enough for me.

I hope it’s good enough for you too.

 

 

 

 

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Vegan Sweetcorn Fritters

Sweetcorn fritters have always been a regular mid-week meal in our house so I was really pleased to find a recipe for a vegan version.  I didn’t imagine I would be able to get a lovely, rich, pancakey batter without using eggs and milk but silken tofu works wonderfully well as a dairy free alternative.

This is based on another Isa Chandra Moscowitz recipe but I have changed it a little bit; Isa uses fresh corn and cuts it off the cob (and you can too) but I think of this as a store cupboard recipe and, as we always have frozen corn in the freezer, this is what I use.  I also use roasted red peppers from a jar – you can find them with anti-pasti and they are sweet and soft and delicious.  As usual I have anglicised the measurements too.

Feel free to leave out the chilli if you are making these for fussy kids (or fussy adults for that matter).  I have also tried alternative flavourings; mixed fresh herbs work well and so does a little smoked paprika.

I should confess that I have made a couple of mistakes though; if you are using chilli chop it by hand and add it just before cooking.  I tried adding it early and blitzing it with the corn and tofu but this gives a much harsher chilli heat and it’s nowhere near as enjoyable.  These fritters are also a bit delicate and quite difficult to flip when you have just cooked one side (they are more robust when both sides are cooked) so I decided that it might be easier to flip them – it’s not!  Don’t try this – you will just end up with a pan (and a t-shirt) full of exploded batter!  Be patient, take care and all will be well.

These are scrummy served with a tasty, healthy mixed salad or, if you are looking for comfort food, with green veg, sweet potato fries and a little ketchup – heaven.

Sweetcorn Fritters

Ingredients

Makes enough fritters for 2 people

170g / 6 oz (half a pack) of Firm Silken Tofu

200g / 7 oz frozen / tinned or fresh Sweetcorn Kernels

1 tbsp Maple Syrup

2 tbsp Almond Milk (or other non-dairy milk)

30 g / 1 oz Plain Flour

1 Red Chilli (finely chopped)

50 g / 2 oz Roasted Red Pepper (chopped)

Salt & Pepper

Oil for frying.

Method

Put the frozen corn into a seive and rinse under the tap until thawed.  Drain well.

Put the tofu, milk, flour and maple syrup into a food processor and blitz until smooth.  Add half the corn and pulse until it is reasonably smooth but with a bit of texture.

Tip into a bowl (use a spatula to make sure you get it all) and add the rest of the corn, the chopped chilli and red pepper and season well with salt and pepper.

Heat a small amount of oil in a frying pan over a medium heat.  Drop generous spoonfuls of the batter into the pan and flatten into rounds approximately 1 cm deep and 6 or 7 cm in diameter (you don’t have to be too precise unless you are serving them to siblings who get out a tape measure to ensure no one gets more than their fair share!).

Cook in batches until golden brown and then turn (carefully) with a fish slice and cook the other side.  When cooked remove from the pan and keep warm whilst you cook the rest of the fritters.

 

 

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Punk Rock Chickpea Gravy

Punk Rock Chickpea Gravy recipe

We take gravy very seriously in our house;  what started as some gentle competition has developed into full on gravy wars over the years with the addition of all sorts of flavour enhancing ingredients.  This year I decided to go vegan for Lent and, whilst I haven’t missed meat at all, I have missed gravy.

I love a roast dinner and am just as happy with a plate full of roast vegetables as I am with a Sunday joint but I still want something tasty to pour over it; to pull all the flavours together.  You can buy instant vegetable gravy granules which are suitable for vegans in as much as they contain no animal products but they lack flavour, have a slightly chemical after taste, contain far too much salt and, all the ones I have seen, contain palm oil.  Palm oil production threatens the habitat of and is responsible for the decline in numbers of orangutans so, to my mind, that makes it entirely unsuitable for any self-respecting vegan.

In England gravy is a sauce made from meat juices but in America the term is used to describe a much wider range of sauces.  This “gravy” recipe comes from Isa Chandra Moscowitz‘s book Vegan with a Vengeance.  It is nothing whatsoever like an English gravy but it may just have changed my life!

You know that feeling when you find a new recipe and you can imagine exactly what it will taste like based on the ingredients?  Well I thought this was going to be one of those sauces but it’s not.  It is so much more tasty than I imagined – it is a Gestalt sauce where the sum is definitely greater than the parts.  We ate it on a vegan roast dinner but we had leftovers so I had some on mashed potatoes for my lunch (and for a photo) next day and I can assure you that this may be the best comfort food ever.

I have reproduced the recipe below exactly as it appears in the book (with English measurements) but Isa Chandra says that she loves to experiment and to change it up so it really appealed to me – and of course I made a couple of changes…

I was curious about the use of asian soy sauce and mediterranean herbs but it works really well – don’t be tempted to change that.  However, the original recipe calls for dried herbs and I don’t buy them so I used fresh – I happened to have rosemary and thyme but not oregano so I left that out.  The recipe also calls for flour as a thickener but I decided not to because I am trying to reduce the amount of wheat I eat.  Instead, once the sauce was finished, I gave it a bit of a blitz with a stick blender – I probably blended about a quarter of the chickpeas but left the rest chunky.  This worked perfectly, the sauce was thick enough and flavoursome enough without the flour.  In fact it was a bit too thick by day two and I should have added a little bit more water.  I also added a teaspoon or two of vegan bouillon powder which I think added value.

If you make this feel free to play around with the flavours yourself but please let me know how you get on.

I probably wouldn’t have called it “Punk Rock” gravy but then I don’t look or live like Isa Chandra Moscowitz, although I did have my moments back in the day…

Punk Rock Chick Pea Gravy

Ingredients

35g Plain Flour

1 tbsp Olive Oil

1 Medium Onion (sliced)

2 tsp Yellow Mustard Seeds

3 Cloves of Garlic (crushed)

1 x 400g can Chickpeas

Pinch Ground Cumin

Pinch Paprika

Pinch of Dried Rosemary

Pinch of Dried Thyme

Pinch of Dried Oregano

Pinch of Ground Coriander

3 tbsp Soy Sauce

2 tbsp Lemon Juice

35g Nutritional Yeast

Method

Mix the flour with 450ml / 3/4 Pint water until the flour is mostly dissolved.

Heat a large, heavy bottomed frying pan over a medium-high heat.  Cook the onion and mustard seeds in the olive oil for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the onion is browned and the seeds are toasted.  Add the garlic and saute for 2 minutes more.

Add the drained chickpeas and use a potato masher to mash them, you don’t want to mash them into a paste; just make sure each one is broken up, although if there are a few whole ones left, that is ok.  Add the herbs and spices, soy sauce and lemon juice.  Scrape the bottom of the pan to loosen any browned bit of onion.

Lower the heat and pour the flour mixture into the pan.  Stir constantly until a thick gravy forms.  Stir in the nutritional yeast.  If it looks too thick and pasty add a little more water and stir well until it loosens up.

Keep warm until ready to serve.

 

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Green Pasta

For most people I know, pasta and pesto is a great store cupboard meal when you don’t feel like cooking.  Boil some water, open a jar of pesto, mix the two together and dinner is ready.

The meal gets a brilliant upgrade if you make your own fresh pesto which, to be completely honest, gives you something to do while the pasta cooks!  But, at the moment, I am being vegan for Lent so I was wondering, how good is pesto without parmesan?

The answer is; it depends on what else you add to the pesto.  I made this one with basil, spinach and walnuts and gave it added zing with some lemon juice.  It was scrummy.  You might also want to consider adding a little nutritional yeast to boost the protein and vitamin B12 content of this meal.  It also adds a faint “cheesiness” to the flavour.

Add some green veg to the pasta; peas or mange tout for example, and dinner is ready.  I like to top mine with a few more nuts for added protein and a bit of crunch and some rocket or parsley for added “green”!

This is instinctive rather than precise cooking so add a little bit more of this or less of that as you see fit.  Experiment with different herbs or nuts – wild garlic or rocket and pine nuts work well.

Vegan Pesto Recipe

Makes enough for two

Ingredients

For the Pesto

A small handful of walnuts

A large handful of fresh Basil Leaves

A large handful of young Spinach Leaves

1 large Clove of Garlic

Juice of half a Lemon

Extra Virgin Olive Oil

1 tbsp Nutritional Yeast (optional)

Salt & Pepper

For the rest

150g Spaghetti (more if you are hungry)

A handful of Mange Tout and/or Peas

A handful of Parsley

5 or six Walnuts, broken into pieces.

Method

Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil.  Add the spaghetti and cook according to the packet.

While it cooks place the garlic, walnuts and nutritional yeast (if you are using it) into a food processor and blitz.  Add the basil and spinach and blitz again.  Pour in the lemon juice and a generous glug of olive oil and blitz again.  Add more olive oil if needed to get a thick but flowing consistency.

Two minutes before the pasta is cooked add the peas or mange tout.  When everything is tender drain and return to the pan.  Pour in the pesto, add a grinding of black pepper and toss.  Plate up and top with the chopped parsley and walnut pieces.

Best enjoyed with a glass of wine and the company of someone who is interested in all the ups and downs of your day.

 

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Nigella’s Vegan Chocolate Cake

Nigella's Vegan Chocolate Cake

This Nigella Lawson recipe was recommended to me by a friend (thanks Angela) who is a vegetarian but not a vegan.  She says it is her favourite chocolate cake and she is not alone in that.

Nigella calls this her “Dark and Sumptuous” chocolate cake and describes it as her “go to” chocolate cake recipe for everyone.  She doesn’t even bother to tell them that it is vegan unless they need it to be.  Anyone who knows Nigella’s cooking knows that she loves uncompromisingly decadent food and this cake makes no compromises whatsoever.

I have already posted a vegan chocolate cake recipe but I thought this one was worth a try too and I am so glad I gave it a go.  It is deeply chocolatey, incredibly rich and torte-like and, well, just plain delicious really.  It also keeps exceptionally well, I made this one 4 days ago and it is still every bit as moist now as it was on day one.

The recipe uses coconut butter.  Please note that this is not the same as coconut oil.  I found it in a good health food shop but, if you can’t get it you can either use any vegan margarine or you can make your own coconut butter by blitzing dried (not desiccated or sweetened) coconut flakes in a food processor.

If you are making this for a vegan please make sure that the cocoa powder and chocolate that you use contain no dairy whatsoever.

I have reproduced Nigella’s recipe faithfully here but, as my kitchen is quite cold, I found that the icing had set too hard by time the cake was baked and cooled.  However, I managed to re-warm it a little (over some hot water) whilst beating it with a wooden spoon; it was soon restored to a spreading consistency and it was still glossy so no need to panic if this happens to you.

You can top it with anything you like (or indeed with nothing at all) but I liked the look of the pistachios and rose petals that Nigella used and, as I had both in the cupboard, I went with them.  I used salted pistachios because I like to offset the slight saltiness against the rich sweetness of chocolate.  I suspect it would be wonderful topped with raspberries too – either fresh or freeze dried so, next time I make it…

 

Nigella's Vegan Chocolate Cake

Ingredients

225g / 8 oz Plain Flour

1½ tsp Bicarbonate of Soda

½ tsp Sea Salt

1½ tsp Instant Espresso Powder

75 g / 3 oz Cocoa

300 g / 11 oz Soft Dark Brown Sugar

375 ml / ½ Pint Hot Water from a recently boiled kettle

75 g / 3 oz Coconut Oil (90ml)

1½ tsp Cider Vinegar or White Wine Vinegar

1 tbsp Edible Rose Petals

1 tbsp Chopped Pistachios

For the Icing

60 ml / 2 fl oz Cold Water

75 g / 3 oz Coconut Butter (this is not the same as oil)

50 g / 2 oz soft dark sugar

1½ tsp Instant Espresso Powder

1½ tbsp Cocoa

150 g / 5 oz Dark Chocolate (min. 70% cocoa solids), chopped

You will need a 20cm/8in round springform cake tin.

Method

Preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F/Gas Mark 4 and pop in a baking sheet at the same time.

Start with the icing.  Put all of the icing ingredients except the chopped chocolate into a heavy-based saucepan and bring to the boil, making sure everything’s dissolved.  Then turn off the heat – but leave the pan on the hob – and quickly add the finely chopped chocolate and swirl the pan so that it is all underwater, so to speak. Leave for a scant minute, then whisk until you have a darkly glossy icing, and leave to cool.  Give the icing a stir with a spatula every now and again.

Line the bottom of your springform cake tin (you will need a good, leak-proof one as this is a very wet batter) with baking parchment.

Put the flour, bicarb, salt and instant espresso and cocoa in a bowl and fork to mix.

Mix together the sugar, hot water, coconut oil and vinegar until the coconut oil has melted, and stir into the dry ingredients.  Pour into the prepared tin and bake for 35 minutes. Though do check at the 30-minute mark to see if it is already done.

When it’s ready, the cake will be coming away from the edges of the tin and a cake tester will come out clean, apart from a few crumbs. This is a fudgy cake and you don’t want to overdo it.

Once the cake is cooked, transfer the tin to a wire rack and let the cake cool in its tin.

Turn to your icing, and give it a good stir with a spatula to check it is at the right consistency. It needs to be runny enough to cover the cake, but thick enough to stay (mostly) on the top. So pour over the unmoulded cake, and use a spatula to ease the icing to the edges, if needed.

If you wish to decorate, now is the time to do it. In which case, sprinkle joyously with rose petals and chopped pistachios or anything else that your heart desires; otherwise, leave it gleaming darkly and, indeed, sumptuous. Leave to stand for 30 minutes for the icing to set before slicing into the cake.

 

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