Vegan meals made easy

Although I’ve been happily vegetarian for about three years now, I still have this mental block about going vegan even for short periods of time. I get up on a designated vegan day, look longingly at the open wedge of brie in the fridge, think about tea with milk…a cheesy omelet…lovely thick Greek yogurt. And then I get grumpy, eat whatever vegan food is readily available (regardless of taste, quantity, or nutrition), feel deprived, and give up the whole vegan thing by lunch time.

True, it would be helpful not to have eggs or dairy in the fridge to begin with. However, since I have no intention of becoming a full-time vegan, I always have  some non-vegan staples in my fridge — eggs and butter, if nothing else.

After I had given up designated vegan days, I noticed that I do actually eat vegan meals fairly often without realizing that they are vegan. These painless, unplanned vegan meals all have one thing in common: they are all Asian.

My parents are Chinese immigrants, so dairy was never a huge part of our meals. Whenever we ate Chinese food, which was about five times a week, it never contained dairy and only rarely contained eggs. Fresh lightly steamed or stir-fried vegetables always outweighed the meat by about 4:1. In contrast, western cuisine lays on the meat and dairy with a heavy hand. Cutting it out means either eating weird hippie food (sprouted quinoa or raw cashew ‘cheese’) or making a lot of substitutions, often with highly processed ingredients like TVP. I recently looked at a vegan mac and cheese recipe that contained 30+ ingredients. (As opposed to homemade mac and cheese, which has about 5 and is cheaper and easier to make. And tastes better.) Making western cuisine vegan is an uphill battle.

However, a lot of Asian food can be made vegan simply by cutting out the meat. Some of my favorite meals involve simply stir-frying a huge, colorful mound of fresh vegetables with garlic, ginger, seseame oil, soy sauce, chili oil, or peanut sauce, in various combinations. Need a starch? Throw in some brown rice or whole wheat noodles. Want something hot? Make a noodle soup instead. Protein? Some extra firm tofu chunks. The combinations are endless. And because the vegetables come out of the pan just a little seared but still full of color and texture, you might not even notice that there’s no meat, egg, or dairy involved.

(No recipes, either. Like my mother and generations of Chinese cooks before her, we toss in whatever we have and/or sounds good, and then season to taste. If you have basic Asian seasonings, everything else can be improvised.)

Here are some vegetables I like to stir-fry:

  • baby corn
  • broccoli
  • bell peppers
  • mushrooms (shiitake, oyster, button…)
  • green onions
  • zucchini/courgette
  • eggplant
  • bean sprouts
  • carrots

For me, cooking from a cuisine in which dairy plays a minimal role  has been the easiest (and cheapest) way to go vegan without feeling like something’s missing. Never mind the vegan cheese, vegan butter substitute, buckwheat groats. Pass the veggie stir-fry, please!

What are your tips for painless vegan meals?

3 responses to this post.

  1. I totally agree with you on how much meat and dairy is in western food. And I’m with you on the fake cheese; if a cookbook uses fake cheese, I put it back on the shelf. Have you tried Earth Balance margarine, though? – a lot of people love it. I think cheese is an addiction/habit. After about 1-2 months having none at all, I bet you’d be done with it. But I understand that probably sounds difficult and far-fetched to you.

    I agree there’s probably not much difference between eating a bunch of vegan meals throughout the week and eating them all on one day.

    I wish I could cook a better stir-fry. They never taste like I think they should. They don’t taste like restaurant food, and maybe that is the issue – maybe they shouldn’t. Any tips for me? I have a wok, peanut oil, and soy sauce, so what’s my problem?

    Tips for you: I have good luck with southern food. Black-eyed peas, collard greens with BBQ sauce, corn bread. These have few ingredients.

    Italian: One of my favorite dishes is lasagna rollups. You say you don’t like cashew “cheese.” I don’t usually like fake cheese, but the cashew/tofu ricotta recipe I use is easy and awesome. Use it for calzones, too. You can make different pasta sauces pretty quickly (while you heat up the pasta water) (marinara, pesto, verdura (mixed veggies)) so spaghetti doesn’t feel like the world’s lamest meal.

    Tex-mex or whatever they’re calling it now: black beans and rice, fajitas. Just don’t try to veganize a cheesy recipe – they forget to put the flavor in.

    Indian: curries! These do not have to be heavy sauces – I make my own curry sauce, very little fat, in minutes from about 7 ingredients.

    Soup and bread.

    I eat a lot of other stuff that isn’t “ethnic,” difficult to summarize.

    Reply

  2. Posted by ailanna on 04/03/2010 at 23:27

    Thanks for all your suggestions! I do like curries, especially sweet coconut Thai ones. I haven’t tried making my own due to my somewhat limited spice rack, so I depend on Trader Joe’s. Southern food isn’t big around here (NorCal), but I love collard greens in Ethiopian food, so it’s definitely worth a shot.

    I could probably give up cheese if I wanted to, but I don’t. It’s something I don’t eat a whole lot of, but thoroughly enjoy when I do. Heck, my cat is named Brie! I’m morally OK with being just a vegetarian, and I like being able to go to restaurants and finding something I can eat. I found my designated vegan days really restrictive, and I’ve figured out by now that voluntarily doing things that make me unhappy never ends up sticking. So, vegetarian it is.

    As for the stir-fries…a few tips for you to try. 1) stir-fry over at least medium high and turn up the heat to high (and stop stirring for a minute or two) when it’s just about done to get a nice toasty/caramelized flavor. Especially fab with rice or noodles. 2) veg are done when they change color; they should still be crunchy. 3) if you want to use less oil, you can pour a bit of water into the hot pan, cover, and steam for a minute or two. Combinations of spices/seasonings I like: green onion, lots of garlic, dark mushroom soy sauce; chili oil, garlic, soy sauce, peanut sauce, sugar; sesame oil, soy sauce, garlic…hmm. Oh, and if you’re still finding it a bit bland, sneak some vegetable stock powder in.

    One of my favorite meals on a hot summer evening is cold wheat noodles (either Asian or spaghetti) with shredded cucumber, carrot, bean sprouts, topped with coarsely chopped peanuts and a sauce made with either just soy sauce and sesame oil (lazy version) or soy sauce, sesame oil, chili oil, garlic, a little sugar, and just a dab of peanut butter, all mixed together. Yum!

    Reply

  3. Thanks, I’ll give it another shot.

    Reply

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