If there’s one thing we learned this past year and a half, it’s the importance of taking good care of yourself. One of the easiest ways to do so, as we’ve known since kindergarten (but sometimes failed to abide by) is to eat more vegetables. No-brainer. But how to do that without sacrificing joy—and flavor—isn’t always super intuitive.
That’s why today, on National Vegan Day (November 1), it’s a great time to plan a break from meat and dairy. We already know that plant-based diets benefit the planet (not to mention the billions of animals slaughtered every year for our plates), but taking a breather can also better our minds and bodies—or at least offer a much-needed feeling that we’re doing good by ourselves. We know that Thanksgiving is coming, and that the holiday parties are going to be a time of charcuterie plates galore, but whether you’re a seasoned VegHead or a plant-based n00b, we have top tips for eating like a boss if you’re bowing down to the meat-free life.
LISTEN TO VEGANS WHO KNOW WHAT THEY’RE DOING (i.e., chefs)
A couple of years ago, we acknowledged that going cold Tofurky is hard work, and reached out to a few of our favorite vegan chefs to ask for their thoughts on how to do the plant-based life right. Here are a few sound bites to keep in mind as you navigate a month of veganism:
“If you view going vegan as a huge life-long shift, the likelihood is that you'll slip up. But if you do slip up, don't kick yourself. Trying your best is better than not trying at all.” —Grace Regan, founder of London-based “vegan curry house” pop-up SpiceBox.
“Stick to your favorite dishes that you already know and love and simply recreate them with cruelty-free ingredients before branching out into things you’ve never tried before. For example, why not try making spaghetti Bolognese, pizza, or stir fry? Simply replace the meat and dairy products with vegan versions.” —Karris McCulloch, co-founder of vegan subscription box company TheVeganKind.
“Simple things like learning how to make a ‘bowl’ can take the pressure off. You just need a protein (tofu, beans, nuts), a grain or other carb, fresh veggies and/or fruit, and a tasty dressing. It can be served hot or cold—super delicious, balanced, and filling… Get familiar with spices and herbs. I can guarantee the reason you think you hate cauliflower is because grandma boiled it to death and served it without any seasoning.” —Lue Cuttiford, founder of vegan cheese company Black Arts Vegan.
There are plenty of reasons why buying dried goods, especially in bulk, is the move as a vegan: You save loads of money, you can meal prep for days or weeks at a time, you can stash any excess for later, and you maximize the product you receive while minimizing plastic waste. Plus, you can be one of those smug people with big glass jars full of bulk stuff on your kitchen counter.
So what, exactly, should you buy?
Seasoning, your best friend
As Lue Cuttiford mentioned above, a lot of people grow up unfairly biased against vegetarian food because they never learn how to properly season anything. If the only condiments in your childhood home were mayo and ketchup… well, we’re sorry to hear that, but it’s not too late to escape your white-bread world and learn how to make things taste really good.
We love Omsom seasoning kits for streamlining the cooking process when making some of our favorite Southeast Asian and East Asian dishes, from Korean bulgogi to Filipino sisig. Go with tofu, tempeh, seitan, or any other fake meat for your protein, and you’re all set for a super-flavorful vegan entree.
Get thee to some chili crisp. Its crunchy, spicy, umami qualities elevate everything from tofu scramble to noodles to stir fry. There are the legacy brands we stand by (i.e., Lao Gan Ma) and a bunch of new kids on the block, like Fly by Jing, that are certifiably worthy of being the stars of your pantry.
A staple of North African cuisine, preserved lemon remains underappreciated in most kitchens in America. It’s a tangy, earthy way to add punch to everything from eggplant dishes and rice bowls to avocado toast, pastas, and potatoes. A little goes a long way.
Put mushroom powder in broths, stews, marinades, and sauces to elevate their umami factor to stratospheric heights. Po Lo Ku Mushroom Seasoning is the classic.
Versatile and nutritious, lentils are great in vegan burgers and Bolognese, soups and stews, and anywhere else you wanna add meaty texture (as well as a hit of protein and fiber). The green ones are the perfect base in dishes like our Crunchy Vinegar Lentils with Herbs, Warm Lentil and Potato Salad, and Lentil-Stuffed Grilled Tomatoes; the red ones are ideal for Indian cooking, like Easy Red Lentil Dhal, or Easy Lentil Fritters; and black lentils are the caviar of the bunch—tender and earthy, like their bean counterparts.
Can’t be mad at a big bowl of noodles on a cold winter night. It’s the ideal time of year to stock up on dried ramen noodles (perfect for this easily veganized Eggplant and Turnip ramen) and vermicelli. We’re sure you know where to get spaghetti, penne, and fusilli… but if you happen to be wondering where to get bucatini, infamously experiencing a shortage in 2020, we’ve got you.
Snacking on cashews is cool and all, but what deez nuts are really great for is soaking and blending into a creamy base for Alfredo sauce, dressing (like the one for our Vegan Caesar Salad), or dairy-free cheese. We recommend making the truffle cashew cheese from Chandra Gilbert’s beet burgers and using it on, uh, pretty much everything.
We are willfully disengaging from the Online Bean Discourse at this time, but we do love our good old beans, from trendy Rancho Gordos to big meaty Gigandes. Throw them in a soup, douse them in sauce, or explore our 25 favorite recipes featuring the magical fruit.
UPGRADE YOUR GADGETS
If you’re not exactly of the herbivorous persuasion, you may think that the only way to enjoy vegetables is in big chunks or little chunks. You can dice them, or slice them, and that’s it, right? Wrong, folks!!! Something vegans are really good at is finding creative ways to cut up veggies to make them more appealing, whether that’s in nice little matchsticks or aesthetically pleasing coins. Here are some of the best tools of the trade for giving your salad that je ne sais quoi:
A spiralizer, for “zoodles” and other embarrassingly-named-but-enjoyable vegetable pastas
Raw zucchini, beets, and carrots are just… not that exciting. Yet, when presented in pleasing little spaghetti-like shreds, ready to sop up sauce or jazz up a salad, we suddenly not only forgive, but welcome them. When it comes to spiralizers, we like this simple, affordable one from Joseph Joseph, which offers three different thicknesses for everything from faux linguine to angel hair.
A mandoline, for potatoes, cucumbers, fennel, and whatever else you like thinly sliced
We’ve gone on and on and on about how much we love Benriner’s Japanese-style mandoline, and we’re gonna sing its praises again. It will truly change the way you look at vegetables. Your salad can be topped with paper-thin curls of carrot, uniform coins of cucumber, or crunchy slices of fennel in seconds. But also, watch your damn fingers.
Citrus zest… heard of it? Grating ginger and garlic? Fresh nutmeg? The uses are infinite, and you’ll find more and more long after Veganuary ends.
Microplane Classic stainless steel zester and cheese grater, $14 at Houzz.
BOOKMARK THESE RECIPES
We have a whole lot of vegan recipes on MUNCHIES, and we’re proud of that. But if you’re looking for a few of our staff favorites to start with, try these:
John Joseph’s Vegan Lasagna
This lasagna is soooooooooooo good—as comfort food, it’s on part with your favorite red-sauce joint or the stuff your Nonna made if you were blessed with an Italian grandma. But before you click through and start cookin’, please know that you can substitute the more obscure spices that John Joseph (yeah, the Cro-Mags guy, hardcore legend, and creator of this recipe) has listed. If you’re a perfectionist and do want to find black mustard seeds, you can get them on Etsy or even from Walmart; asafetida can be picked up from Snuk or, again, Walmart; and fenugreek is easily procured by the pound from Nuts.com. But you can just as easily swap in regular mustard powder and celery or onion salt if you don’t feel like waiting days or weeks for those ingredients to be delivered, and this lasagna will still knock your thick crew socks off.
If you’ve ever been to Brooklyn’s Five Leaves, you know that the Greenpoint eatery knows its way around a breakfast dish; it’s ground zero for really good morning-after cuisine. That’s where we got this super-easy, decidedly elegant recipe for blueberry chia pudding with turmeric apricots and goji berries, which you can throw together in the evening and have waiting for you when you roll out of bed. Feel free to swap in whatever fruit you have on hand—it’s pretty much impossible to mess up, but tastes like something you’d find on the expensive room service from a five-star hotel. And as a bonus, it’s secretly got several of those ‘superfoods’ people are always talking about.
Action Bronson’s Golden Beet Poke
A few years ago, Action Bronson went to Hawaii, and—whilst probably high out of his gourd—came up with this spin on poke that uses golden beet as a base instead of fresh fish. Sounds a little untraditional, if not weird, but the earthiness and tender flesh of the beets works perfectly with a salty-sweet soy-sesame-cilantro dressing.
Mac ‘n’ cheese seems like it would be tough to veganize, but we promise that’s not the case. This ultra-creamy cheese sauce is made from soaked cashews (told ya they’re useful), miso paste, coconut cream, and nutritional yeast, combining into a rich, super-umami flavor that gets even better with the addition of crispy coconut bacon bits. Yes, you can be vegan and still be decadent.
Does anyone not like bok choy? We love it loaded with garlic, vinegar, miso, and sesame in this simple, crunchy, wholesome salad that’s perfect as a main, a side, whenever and wherever.
At some point, some deranged but apparently genius vegan decided to experiment with the thick liquid in a can of chickpeas to see whether it had any other culinary applications, and came to realize that it actually makes an incredible substitute for eggs. As a result, you’ll now find that stuff—known as aquafaba—in all kinds of vegan dessert recipes, including this amazing chocolate mousse from Joe Yonan that truly rivals Julia Child’s famous version. Yeah, we said it. And we meant it.
MAYBE YOU DESERVE A LITTLE TREAT OR TWO
It’s absolutely possible to eat vegan for super-cheap—see above about buying in bulk. And generally speaking, the produce section, farmers markets, and international grocery stores are your friend when it comes to finding high-quality fruits and veggies without blowing your whole stimulus check. But if your funds allow, what fun is dabbling in veganism if you can’t try all the kooky plant-based products on there in the world, from fancy mushroom powders to Brie made out of nuts?
Oat milk-based fancy coffee
After years of deluding ourselves, we realized that almond milk is not at all the superior non-dairy milk and it is actually oat milk who is our best friend. It’s rich and creamy and perfect for combining with nitro cold brew for your morning bev.
Salad dressings, avocado, veggies—hit them with some flavorful vinegar, and they all go puh-POW! Learning how to balance acidity is one of the most important pillars of cooking, and vinegar is the perfect way to experiment with it. We love that you can now find all sorts of interesting varieties of vinegar, from White Buffalo Land Trust’s persimmon vinegar to Ramp Up’s ramp vinegar to Acid League’s Meyer lemon vinegar.
Vegan food technology has gotten SO much better since the early 00s days of eating tough, flavorless seitan and watery rice milk, an era that surely polarized many against the very idea of meat and dairy substitutes. Believe it or not, vegan cheese is really really good now, from melty, mozzarella-like Daiya to refined, bloomy Rind. If you’ve truly lost your mind and want to drop $250 on a vegan charcuterie board that should serve 10-12 people (please, please don’t hang out and share food with a dozen people during COVID times) and instead hoard it all for yourself, this one from Goldbelly looks pretty good, featuring everything from Black Garlic Truffle Fontina to French Lapsang aged cheese (and, again, all of it 100-percent vegan).
PHONE IT IN (BUT EXPECT TO PAY BIG BUCKS)
If you’re truly feeling unmotivated (and look, we get it; the quarantine cooking fatigue is real) and are willing to bid sayonara to a bigger chunk of your paycheck in favor of convenience, there are some really solid vegan meal delivery services out there these days. Thistle is the more affordable option, offering a full work-week of meals like a meat-free carnitas taco kit and a Moroccan-inspired roasted vegetable salad for a little over $200. The lineup changes every week, and has fully vegan or “omnivore” options.
If you dare go full crystals-and-chlorophyll, Sakara is a more upscale service that offers dishes more akin to what you’d find on the menu of a high-end vegan restaurant; think beet “rawvioli” with savory cashew creme, or lentil pasta with kale pesto and a macadamia-beet crumble. If you skip the tasty but wildly overpriced breakfasts and get 5 lunches and 5 dinners delivered, it will cost you $285, so from a financial standpoint, it is pretty unsustainable as a long-term program unless you’re a supermodel, a cast member of Bling Empire, or someone who doesn’t mind spending $28 on a bowl of soup with an organic cornbread muffin. But for a treat-yourself week here or there, it is, frankly, pretty damn enjoyable. (From one VICE staffer: “It is among the bougiest things I’ve ever spent money on? Yes. Did I have pangs of annoyance that I was spending so much money on mostly-raw vegetables? Yes. But did I enjoy every bite of my roasted peach chana masala, and feel like a million bucks at the end of the week? Hell yeah.”)
REMEMBER: IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE FOREVER
Come Thanksgiving or whenever, you can go back to standing in front of the food and dangling slices of prosciutto into your mouth, curling up with a pint of Half Baked, and going through a bag of Mexican-style processed shredded cheese every three days. And all of that will be all the more satisfying if you just spent a month eating vegetables. Who knows—maybe you’ll even end up liking the whole veganism thing. After all, there’s still lasagna.
Our writers and editors independently selected all of the stuff featured in this story.