Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The vegan challenge

I spent a few days last week with several colleagues at a small trade show in San Francisco.  Two of my colleagues are vegan, which led me to start thinking about vegan food, and cooking it.

Vegans differ from vegetarians in that not only do they eschew meat, but they also avoid any product from animals, which includes dairy, eggs, and honey.  Silk and leather are on the list, too.  I wonder if they avoid carmine (aka cochineal), a common, natural red food coloring, derived from ground-up bugs. 

As you might imagine, I have my opinions about veganism and vegetarianism, but I'll save them for another post.  And don't get me started on the "I'm a vegetarian, but I eat fish" crowd.

I give these folks credit -- it cannot be easy, especially when dining out, and I've had the opportunity to witness how limited a selection there is when a vegan must dine out.   And though I don't see myself adopting that lifestyle, I would be happy -- eager, in fact -- to cook for them. 

Thinking more about this, I realized that vegan cooking is not unlike the old traditions (Italian, for sure, and probably similarly in other European cultures) of the food of Lent -- "la cucina della Quaresima."  These days we think of Lent as a time when we abstain from meat on Fridays.  Time was, not so long ago, that one abstained from meat for the entire 40 days of Lent, and the abstention went beyond just meat, but also included animal fats, so that dairy and eggs ("i latticini") were excluded, too.

6 weeks without meat, milk, cheese, eggs.  No wonder every special Easter dish -- cheese pie, meat pie, dyed eggs, eggy breads -- orgiastically celebrates breaking that fast. 

From a cook's perspective, cooking vegan food is a challenge.  Sort of like driving on the left side of the road. ("Stay on the left, stay on the left, stay on the left.")  Or playing one-handed piano pieces.  Or avoiding using the letter 'e' in any word in an essay.  You have to keep muttering to yourself: "no butter, no eggs, no milk, no butter, no eggs, no milk..."

Plenty in my repertoire is already vegan, or easily adaptable to vegan:
•  Simple pasta sauces made with olive oil -- tomato sauces, with an array of goodies added in -- olives, artichokes, capers (skip the anchovies, which I typically like to add, but can avoid), on dry pasta (have to avoid the fresh egg pastas).
•  Pasta sauces made with vegetable bases -- broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus.  I might miss the cheese to sprinkle over it, but I'll manage.  
•  Pesto, made with basil, nuts, and oil, but leave out the parmigiano.
•  Vegetables of every sort, sauteed in olive oil and garlic, accented with onion, or olives, or raisins, or lemon zest, or balsamic vinegar.
•  Stewed greens -- cabbage, chard, escarole -- with beans or potatoes, with white wine, or cider vinegar, or shredded apples.
•  Potatoes of all sorts, sure, but making mashed with olive oil perhaps. Well, there are always french fries, home fries (done with onion and bits of sweet pepper), or lyonnaise -- a potato casserole with alternating layers of thinly sliced potatoes and sauteed onions, covered in (veggie) stock, and baked with some toasted crumbs on top. 
•  Oven-roasted root vegetables, like rutabagas, turnips, sweet potatoes, parsnips.  Glorious when drizzled with garlic-scented olive oil, coarse salt, a good grind of black pepper, and maybe even a few drops of balsamic vinegar.
•  Salads, of course.
•  Pickled veggies, jazzed up with hot pepper.
•  Simple soups, made with water or veggie broth, lots of aromatics and bits of noodles or rice or greens. 
•  Bread!  As much as I love butter, I'm perfectly happy dipping it in olive oil.  Crostini, made from sourdough bread, schmeared with pesto, and topped with a really, really ripe tomato in September.  I can do that.
•  Mushrooms go a long way to adding much need savoriness to vegetables of any sort.  Heck, just this evening, I did a sauté of green beans and mushrooms.  Who needs meat?
•  Starches of all sorts -- rice, corn and polenta, oatmeal.  
•  Beans -- cannellini baked with onions, sage, and olive oil in the Tuscan fashion (one of the few ways that I enjoy beans), curried chick pea stews, rice and lentils, veggie lentil soup, black beans with garlic, cilantro, cumin in the Cuban style.

One of these days I'm going to prep a whole vegan dinner and serve it to my friends, and see if they notice. 

Ignore the chicken. 

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