I tell people a lot of the time that being vegan doesn't mean eating weird food that you've never heard of before. You've likely eaten vegan meals before, you just weren't thinking about it. Apples, carrots, walnuts, rice, bread, kidney beans, pasta, tomato sauce...all vegan and all "normal." On the other hand, it's absolutely true that you're culinary horizons will broaden once you become vegan, and you will almost certainly start eating some foods that you've never encountered before. And some of them sound positively, well, weird.
So in an attempt to make these foods a little more accessible, I've demystified a few of them below.
Okay, I'm assuming you've all heard of tofu, but most non-vegetarians are baffled, nay, terrified of the stuff. Don't be scared. Tofu is simply made from soymilk (which is really just soybeans that are blended with water, and then strained), with a coagulant added, then formed into a solid little cake. It's kind of like making cheese, but without the pus.
You can buy blocks of tofu that usually come in soft, firm, or extra firm, or silken tofu. The first kind is what you commonly find in the refrigerated section of your supermarket. Silken tofu (the kind that almost falls apart in your hands) is usually found shelved in aseptic boxes with other Chinese/Japanese style food.
Been served tofu that tastes like, well, nothing? Or worse, used gym socks? Naughty chef. Tofu isn't usually eaten by itself. That's just weird. The point of tofu is that it's got all these little pores that suck up flavour like Paris Hilton sucks up...never mind. Even more so if the tofu is frozen beforehand and then thawed. Take a firm or extra-firm block of tofu, wrap it up in either a clean tea towel or paper towels, and press it underneath a plate or cutting board weighed down by The Joy of Cooking. Don't own The Joy of Cooking? And you think tofu's weird. Just use any big, fat book. Press it for ten minutes and then chuck it in some marinade for 30-60 minutes. Any marinade you like will do, but try a simple Asian-style one, or even an Italian marinade with white wine, Italian herbs, and tomato paste. Bake it, grill it, or fry it. Eat it as the main protein in your meal, or throw it into a curry, miso soup, stir-fry, or fried rice. Silken tofu is used a lot in desserts as an egg replacement, or as a different way to make puddings and mousses.
You can buy tofu in your regular grocery store, but in the UK I make the extra effort to buy it from an east Asian grocery store, where you will find it for about half the price.
Note: Japanese seasoned tofu, especially the tofu used to make inari sushi pockets has a secure place on my top 10 favourite foods. Ask your local Asian grocer about it.
What the what is tempeh? Still not a very commonly seen food outside of vegetarian world, tempeh is tofu's artsy little sibling. A traditional Indonesian food, it is technically a cake of fermented soybeans. And it looks weird as heck. But stick with it! Tempeh is very nutritious and even some people who have a sensitivity to soy find that they can tolerate tempeh much better. It's got a fairly unusual taste...it tastes to me of wine, nuts, and yeast. Tempeh can be used in loads of different ways. Try cutting it into the form that you want it, steaming it for 10 minutes to remove any bitterness, and then marinating it for a while and frying it. Lots of vegans like to make tempeh bacon by slicing it into strips, steaming it, marinating it in maple syrup and soy sauce, and then frying it. Uses for tempeh abound, so check out a vegan cookbook and see what looks good to you.
In the UK, it's not an easy thing to find, but independent health food shops and Wholefoods carry the Impulse brand in their refrigerated section. I've also found it in Chinese grocery stores in the freezer section, but I haven't been too keen on this type; I much prefer the Impulse kind. In Canada, I've seen it beside the tofu in regular grocery stores.
Seitan rounds out what vegan gurus Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero refer to as the holy trinity of tofu, tempeh, and seitan, otherwise known as three traditional, relatively wholefood sources of protein that can kinda be used on a dinner plate in the same way meat is. Seitan is another import from Asia, created from cooked wheat gluten, the protein from wheat. And it's very yummy! And it's very, very hard to find in the UK! And don't feed it to your celiac suffering friends; it's exactly what they can't eat!
Seitan is usually sliced or cubed and used instead of meat in a multitude of dishes. It's texture is very meaty and it's taste, um, it's just kind of...savoury. It's a pretty easy sell for newbies...there's no adjustment period like there might be with tempeh or tofu.
I have only ever found seitan sold pre-made in the UK twice for £8 a jar, so I make my own. And I can't find wheat gluten (the flour used to make it) in bricks and mortar stores here, so I order it online for £5 per kilo bag. Luckily, I don't make it very often, so I've only ever had to do this once. Yes, I really needed to spend that much money on a bag of flour. You have no idea how much frustration it was causing me. My impression is that both seitan and wheat gluten are much more easily found in Canada and the States. Try Bulk Barn.
4. Agave Nectar
Ah-Gah-Vey. Not A-Gave. Agave nectar has risen in popularity as of late as a natural sweetener, famed for being very low-glycemic. Vegans often use it instead of honey. Made from the agave plant, which is also responsible for tequila (which is responsible for many poor decisions around the world), it's got a mild sweetness that makes it a good alternative to honey. Originally thought to be gentle on your blood sugar levels, resulting in the health-inclined and gullible to pour it on top of everything, a really boring debate has struck up around it, and whether or not its really any better than sugar and other sweeteners. My own, half thought-out opinion is that being less processed and closer to it's natural state, it probably is a healthier product, but I would have thought that it was common sense that any concentrated sweetener has to be consumed in moderation. Apparently not.
Agave nectar can be found in both light and dark forms, the dark being less processed and stronger flavoured, and both can be found in your regular grocery store. It costs around the same as a good quality honey.
5. Nutritional yeast
We're in VeganWorld now, my friend! Nutritional yeast, or nooch, as it's affectionately called by it's followers, is really the height of crazy vegan food world. What is it? It's a powder or flakes (the flake kind is better) made from cultured yeast. What do you do with it? High in B-complex vitamins and a complete source of protein, it's sometimes used as a vitamin supplement, but it's mostly loved by vegans for having a cheesy taste.
Some brands are fortified with vitamin B12, which has caused some confusion with people thinking it's a natural source of the nutrient, but it's just fortified with it. Not every brand does this, so be sure to check the label before your rely on it as your source of B12.
The first time I ever opened a container of this stuff I was scared and confused. To the novice nooch nose, nutritional yeast doesn't exactly smell like a round of freshly baked brie. Cut to me a few years later, and my mouth waters whenever I smell that weird, vegany, cheesy smell.
I love sprinkling it on top of pasta or a risotto in the same way you might use parmesan cheese. It's often used in cheese sauces or vegan cheeses. Throw it on top of some popcorn or kale chips, or put a few spoonfuls into your mashed potatoes. Once you start using it its very addictive and you'll want to use it in everything.
You can find nutritional yeast in your local independent health food store (Holland and Barrett's does not carrying it). It's not too expensive, usually about £2 for tub that will last you quite awhile.
Vegan Fettuccine Alfredo with Spinach*
Last night I was sternly reprimanded by a friend for making a spinach pie into a chard pie in the last edition of Market Madness, when my blog is called Spinach. How could I? Thusly, I thought I'd better make my next recipe a spinach one. This recipe is a nice way to introduce nooch into your life; it just adds a nice little savoury kick to your sauce. This sauce is also much lighter than both the dairy original and a lot of the vegan versions out there. And just because it's vegan, doesn't mean that you shouldn't eat it with the traditional golden fork. Um, you do have a golden fork, don't you?
500g of wholewheat fettuccine pasta (spaghetti or linguine will work just fine if you can't find fettuccine)
1 can of coconut milk
1 clove of garlic, minced
3 tbsp nutritional yeast flakes
1 tbsp flour
1/3 cup water
2 tbsp canola oil
dash of nutmeg
salt and pepper to taste
approximately 250g of spinach
Cook the pasta in a pot of boiling water until al dente (or however you prefer it).
Meanwhile, steam the spinach until just wilted. Cool and try to squeeze as much liquid from it as possible.
Heat the oil in a medium-sized sauce pot over medium-high heat. Add the minced garlic and sauteed for a few minutes until it's just starting to turn brown and fragrant. Add the coconut milk and nutritional yeast flakes. Turn the head down to medium-low and simmer for 5 minutes.
Mix the flour and water together in a small bowl. Add to the coconut milk mixture and stir until it reaches a thick consistency.
Add the spinach and stir until combined. Season with nutmeg, salt and pepper to taste.
Mix with the cooked pasta and serve.
*Modified from a recipe that I found on VegWeb that I can't find anymore.