The Unseen Restaurant Vegan Night

Vegan Curry Night

For the last 4 weeks I have been engaged in a month long challenge to eat only vegan food.  As I was approaching the end of the month and beginning to get the hang of the whole thing I decided to run an Unseen Restaurant night where I would invite my omnivorous friends to come and share some vegan food.

This food had to be good; Unseen Restaurant guests pay for their food and I didn’t want my meat eating friends to feel short changed.  In a way I feel like I wimped out by deciding to do a curry night, vegan fine dining would have been a bigger challenge but also a higher risk.  I didn’t want to put people off, I just wanted to offer them something familiar but different.  So I settled on curries.

Having said that curries are simple I have eaten some awful curries in my time; over or underspiced, so fiery you can’t taste anything for a week or so bland you wouldn’t know it was curry.  I have also been served curries with an oil slick on top or full of poor quality ingredients, presumably in the hope that the spicing would hide the wilted veg and gristly meat.

I was really aiming for a range of flavours and textures with some layered spicing.  I hope I achieved it.  In the end we ate Onion Bhajis with home made Mango Chutney, Tarka Dhal, Mushroom Passanda and Butternut Squash and Cauliflower Rogan Josh with basmati rice and chapattis.

Then came my second challenge – dessert.  Even under normal circumstances I am not a fan of Indian desserts.  I find them to be overly sweet and many of them are based on milk which is not good if you are planning a vegan meal. Again, I really wanted to give my guests something they would love so I set about making them a very un-Indian chocolate and raspberry brownie.  Again, it’s not the easist thing to make a vegan brownie – the eggs and butter are usually in there for a reason – but it can be done and it can be done well.  For the Unseen Restaurant night I served them with non-dairy Ice “cream” and caramelised hazlenuts.

All in all I think my guests enjoyed the food – judging by the appreciative noises they were making.  No one seemed to miss meat although one or two of them confessed to eating meat for lunch that day “just in case”.

For me?  All these recipes will have a regular place on our table from now on.  Vegan food doesn’t have to be an ethical choice or even a healthy choice – sometimes it’s just darned tasty.

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The Vegan Challenge Week 3 – Is it Cheaper than Eating Meat?

Flax seed, hemp protein powder, raw chocolate powder and agave syrup.

Flax seed, hemp protein powder, raw chocolate powder and agave syrup.

When I have told people that I am following a vegan diet for a month one of the first questions I get asked is “is it cheaper than eating meat?” That’s a really interesting question (although not surprising in the current economic climate) but it’s not really a straightforward one to answer.

I am just about three weeks into the experiment and I feel that I am now ready to give an informed answer – and that is – it depends. I know that’s not a very satisfactory answer but please bear with me and you will soon see what I mean.

Let’s start with protein. Instead of meat, fish and dairy I have mostly been eating more pulses and tofu. Weight for weight or serving for serving pulses and tofu are cheaper every time. For example, an average (150g) free range chicken breast costs in the region of £2.30, the same weight in tofu costs around 60p. In terms of a meal that makes the vegan option significantly cheaper.

However, in terms of nutrients, the150g serving of chicken would provide around 45g of protein whereas the tofu would only give you around 10g of protein. You would have to eat four and a half times more tofu to get the same amount of protein and this would cost you £2.70. Price wise, this would make the cost of your protein more or less the same for chicken or tofu but no one wants to eat 675g of tofu in one meal!

If, as a meat eater, you aren’t particularly focussed on free-range or organic you can buy your chicken much cheaper than this so, in some ways, meat eating becomes the cheaper option.

Are you beginning to see why this is not straight forward?

Of course nuts and seeds are higher in protein than tofu (or other soya products) at around 30g per 100g but you wouldn’t want all your protein to come from such a high calorie / high fat source even if it is a healthier type of fat than the saturated fat in meats.

Lots of (but by no means all) vegans buy food supplements to boost their protein levels. I bought some hemp protein powder which can be added to soups or smoothies to add a little protein punch to the day. I bought it in an independent health food shop which I know to be expensive but having looked on-line you can still expect to pay around £12 to £15 for a 500g bag. This is NOT a vegan essential but it does make getting a balanced diet easier so I can see why people might opt to use it.  I also bought flax seed /linseed (for essential fatty acids) and raw chocolate powder (cacao) and these things all add up.

We already ate a lot of fruit and veg before the vegan experiment but have probably eaten around 50% more over the last few weeks. This can only be a good thing for all sorts of reasons but it does mean that we are spending more in the greengrocers. I desperately wish that fruit and veg was cheaper and this year, after all the rain fall and failed crops in the UK it is more expensive than ever, so, if you are on a very tight budget, you will feel the difference. If you are thinking of becoming a vegan or a vegetarian – get an allotment – it really makes a difference.

Regular readers of bun scuffle will also have noticed that I like to bake. Baking vegan cakes and biscuits takes a bit more thought and may also work out a little more expensive although it really is a little bit “swings and roundabouts”:  Refined, granulated sugar is the cheapest sort of sugar available at less than £1.00 per kg but most vegans don’t eat refined sugar. Refined, specialist sugars cost quite a lot more; I pay around £2.00 per kilo for unrefined golden caster sugar and around £2.80 per kilo for Muscovado sugar but, quite honestly, I would use them anyway even if I am not following a vegan diet. Using agave or maple syrup will push the cost of your baking up quite significantly. However, using vegetable oil instead of butter reduces costs a little and, depending on your egg substitute there is scope to save again.

Specialist vegan groceries tend to be a little more expensive than their non-vegan counterparts but I have been pleasantly surprised by how many products are “accidentally” vegan (lots of bread, most pre-made hummus for example).  However, it is fair to say that milk turns up in some surprising places too (why is there double cream in pre-made guacamole?).

I also like an occasional glass of wine (or three…) and have found that most of the vegan wines I have come across are at the cheaper (£5.00 per bottle ish) end of the scale and some of them have been quite drinkable considering the low cost.

So, all in all, is it cheaper to be a vegan? That still depends. I think most people eat to suit their budget and if being vegan is important to you then I am sure you can be a low budget vegan – you may miss out on a few nutrients but the same is true of low budget meat eaters. If you want to ensure that you eat a wide range of nutrient dense foods then it will cost you more – just as it would a meat eater.

In summary, if you want to become a vegan in order to save money then it is probably not the best choice you will ever make. There are, of course, other very good reasons for making this choice (more later).

However, if as a meat eater you currently eat a wide variety of foods and get all the nutrients you need then you could definitely save money by introducing one or two vegan meals per week into your diet. There will probably be health benefits too. Most omnivores tend to get more protein than they need in the course of a week so getting less at an occasional meal won’t have a significant impact on your health. However, the ability to feed a family of four a scrummy bean and vegetable chilli for under a fiver will definitely do your wallet some good.

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The Vegan Challenge – Unplanned Eating

Unplanned Eating

One of the reasons that I engaged in this challenge was to refocus on what I eat; to make me think more about the food choices I make. This means that, for the most part, meals have been planned and shopped for in advance. However, real life dictates that sometimes, in a busy week, spontaneity is required.

Let me tell you, food spontaneity is much harder when you are eating a vegan diet. There is no such thing as “grabbing a sandwich” and asking for a vegan pasty in Cornwall on St. Piran’s Day may well have got me lynched.

Over the last two weeks I have been amused, impressed and vaguely irritated when trying to eat on the go.

Last Saturday I was running around before hockey, shopping for dinner and generally getting weekend jobs done and I didn’t take the time to plan lunch. This is not an unusual occurrence but the normal solution would be a coffee and a sandwich from a coffee chain or a pastry from a bakery. Coffee is out because, as well as the vegan challenge, I have given up caffeine for Lent and even if I hadn’t I like my coffee with milk – and lots of it (soya milk really doesn’t do it for me).

I usually like to support local, independent shops but, apart from the greengrocers, this has not proved quite so fruitful for instant food. (My local greengrocers is run by Kim who is a vegan and who stocks yummy snacks as well as gorgeous fruit and veg).  The supermarkets do better – just. They are likely to stock Nak’d bars and flavoured rice cakes (my snacks of choice this month) but it is still hard to buy a vegan sandwich. I got very excited when I saw a hummus and roasted vegetable wrap but the wrap itself contained milk powder – what a thoughtless and irritating waste of an opportunity.

I have asked for help in a couple of supermarkets with varying results but the “what does vegan mean?” response wins the unhelpful category hands down. Overall, I found the Co-op to be most helpful. They produce a regularly updated list of their vegan products on-line, the staff in-store at my local branch couldn’t be more helpful and (perhaps most importantly of all) their vegan wines are labelled as suitable for vegetarians/vegans.

I tend to avoid fast food outlets and chain restaurants (with one or two exceptions) even when I am eating meat but apparently some of them are good for vegan food. I have read that Wagamamas has a number of really tasty vegan choices and their website includes a dietary filter so you can search for vegan options easily but, as my nearest branch is 100 miles away, that’s not terribly helpful!

Last Sunday was Mother’s Day and I went to the Eden Project along with my mum, one of my daughters and my granddaughter. We had a lovely day exploring the gardens and the biomes and then it was time for lunch. This wasn’t a day for a picnic, I wanted to treat my mum and just had to hope there would be something vegan for me. I was very impressed. I know that Eden has a strong policy on sustainably sourced food and lots, if not most, of it is vegetarian but I didn’t know about vegan. The self service restaurant was very busy and a queue had formed. A young woman was directing the queue so I asked her what vegan options there were. Apparently they had a vegan curry, the soup was vegan and all their bread is vegan, which is great, but actually I was most impressed by the fact that the first person I asked had all the information I needed.

If I go into Truro, the nearest big town which is about 9 miles away, life gets much easier as there is a good health food shop with a fantastic vegetarian café with plenty of tasty vegan options – and they do take away. I guess that most big towns have somewhere like this but it is just a little bit harder out in the sticks and, suffice to say, I have eaten a lot of spontaneous bananas over the last 2 weeks.

Even though I am not really a vegan and this is just an experiment in conscious eating, I have made a point of engaging with shop keepers over the vegan issue. I have asked for information in the hopes of raising awareness of the needs of vegans. I have been told, more than once, that there just isn’t a demand for vegan food. This may be true with only about 1/3 of one percent of the UK population (200,000 people or so) describing themselves as vegan it probably doesn’t make good commercial sense for small shops to make big changes but if one of the supermarket chains decided to target this group they would be likely to see an increase in sales.

I naively thought that vegan food would be clearly labelled and readily available – that has not proved to be the case. Of course it is better to plan your eating and cook from scratch but, sometimes, that just isn’t feasible.

The point that most retailers miss is that a lot of non-vegans would choose a vegan option if it was tasty enough. As a meat eater I often choose foods which are “accidentally” vegan; salads, Innocent Veg Pots, fresh soups etc. and I can’t believe that I am alone in that.

Of course this is not a critical issue, with only a little forethought I can make a sandwich to take with me or fill a flask with soup but, despite eating well when I have time to plan for it, I still have a hankering for that spur of the moment roasted pepper and hummus wrap.

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Asian Marinated Tofu

Asian marinated tofu with braised cabbage and mushrooms and soba noodles.

I created this recipe for the vegan challenge – a month of eating an entirely vegan diet.

I’ve never really been a fan of tofu – it’s not that I dislike it, just that I don’t really like it either, it’s kind of a non-food; a little bit bleh.  But it is a great source of plant protein so, in the interests of eating a balanced vegan diet this month, I thought it should feature.

Tofu is also high in calcium (important in a dairy free diet) and, along with other soya based foods, has been shown to help with the symptoms of menopause as it contains phyto-oestrogens.  It is high in tryptophan too (half a pack provides nearly half the recommended daily amount) – tryptophan is needed to help us make serotonin; the neurotransmitter which is essential to regulating mood.  Oh – and did I mention that it is low in fat?

All in all this makes it a great food for everyone but particularly for a woman of (ahem) a certain age.  I needed to make friends with tofu!

The solution seemed to be to pack it in flavour and there is nothing quite like Asian flavours for doing that.  This worked really well.  The marinade is a scaled down version of one that I usually use with salmon (sorry) but without the fish sauce or honey.

I served this with cabbage and mushrooms and soba noodles.  I cooked all of these in a spicy stock I made earlier in the day for matchstick soup.  The braising stock consisted of vegan stock, simmered with some lemongrass, chilli and ginger.  I used cabbage because I had it but Pak Choi would be great too.

I am definitely a tofu convert – maybe you should try it too.

Ingredients

Serves 2

A 227 g pack of Firm Tofu

2 tbsp Soy Sauce

2 tbsp Rice Wine Vinegar

2 tbsp Agave Syrup

2 Star Anise

1 Clove Garlic (crushed)

1 tsp Thai Seven Spice

1 tsp Sesame Oil

1 tbsp Vegetable Oil (for frying)

Method

Mix all the ingredients except the Vegetable Oil and the tofu together.  If you have time set aside for half an hour for the flavours to mingle.

Cut the tofu into six or eight slices and place in a single layer in a shallow dish with the marinade.  Leave for 10 minutes – turning once.

Heat the vegetable oil in a frying pan and cook the tofu slices for a few minutes on each side until browned.  Remove to a serving plate.  Add the rest of the marinade to the pan and heat for a minute or two until it is just beginning to caramelise (be careful not to burn it).  Drizzle over the tofu and serve.