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April 10, 2015

The Joy and Adventure of Vegan Cooking.

Vegan Salad

Here’s a secret no one tells us about veganism: it’s not about deprivation or making do with ho-hum flavors in the name of a spiritual principle—it’s about the love of food!

Veganism gives us opportunities to explore flavors in a unique and dynamic way, and allows us to learn cooking techniques we wouldn’t normally bother to acquire, giving us an unparalleled depth of experience in our relationship to food.

Allow me to explain.

Yesterday, while indulging in one of my guilty pleasures—the Food Network (because I spend all day, every day thinking about food)—I saw something kind of amazing. The first episode of Chopped was (almost) entirely dedicated to vegan ingredients. (The one exception was honey, which they seemed surprised to discover isn’t vegan. Oh, well, at least they were trying.)

If you’re not familiar with Chopped, four chefs battle each other by making dishes from four secret ingredients that are revealed moments before the contest begins. Their creations are judged by a panel of experts, and the chefs are eliminated until only one remains. It’s kind of like American Idol, but instead of singing, contestants figure out how to make things like bull testicles, a.k.a. “Rocky Mountain oysters,” “Montana tendergroins,” “cowboy cavier” or “swinging beef” palatable.

(And if that doesn’t get you in a vegan frame of mind, I don’t know what will.)

Despite the ick factor of many of the secret ingredients, the necessity for cooks to think creatively keeps me watching. I realized during the vegan episode that this appeals to me because it’s what vegan cooks have to do on a daily basis.

The contestants on this episode were comprised of a vegan, a former vegetarian and two traditional chefs. Their differing approaches were telling.

The two traditional chefs added animal fat in the form of cheese, butter and bacon to beautiful ingredients like walnuts, morel mushrooms and wheatgrass, which was allowed despite the theme. The former vegetarian also resorted to things like chicken stock to make his food flavorful.

The vegan, of course, cooked vegan, and didn’t use any animal products except a dash of the required honey, which he seriously considered eschewing though it would have cost him $10,000.

In each round, the vegan chef put together intriguing, gorgeous-looking plates: a spring roll filled with yellow beets and dandelion greens, crusted with chia seeds resting in a rich, mushroom gravy; a tempeh “steak” marinated and seared to crispy, juicy perfection; and for dessert, a brightly-colored puree of fruit with cognac-braised blueberries and that dreaded drizzle of honey.

The judges gave rave reviews to all his dishes and frequently commented that they were surprised by the depth of flavor in the vegan food, remarking that “they had really learned something today.”

By comparison, the meat-eating chefs struggled with texture, complexity and balance, leading to the vegan guy’s victory.

Cue me clapping my hands moronically in front of the TV.

Yes, the vegan chef had a distinct advantage because he’s an authority on vegan cooking, but it wasn’t just his win that impressed me. He reminded me of myself and every other vegan cook in his approach to food, which clarified what I like about it.

At every turn, his attitude was about doing good and feeling good.

His relationship with food extended beyond himself and encompassed the health and well being of all creatures. This outlook gave him not the self righteous condescension that vegans are often accused of, but a bright, open glow and a kindness that made me want to sit down and chat with him.

And while the root of his choice to be vegan may be philosophic, he has discovered that, in it’s own right, there is magic in vegetable cooking. When we’re forced to think outside the box to create satisfying, umami flavors using only plant-based ingredients, interesting things happen.

Instead of slapping a chicken breast on the grill, vegans soak nuts, slide zucchini through a mandolin, bake sweet potatoes, chop apples, grab saffron, beer, white wine or nutmeg and toss together a decadent, creamy stew.

Instead of dumping boring old marinara sauce and meatballs on our spaghetti, we roast mushrooms, peppers and kalamata olives with fennel seeds and serve it atop fresh linguini with a drizzle of truffle oil, sea salt and red pepper flakes.

And sandwiches, once filled with tuna and mayo, are now a dazzling array of textures and clean flavors made from smashed chick peas, celery, kelp flakes, onion, sliced heirloom tomatoes and bright green sprouts on seeded sourdough bread.

In vegan cooking, every meal can be an adventure.

Even if you don’t cook vegan all the time, which is admittedly a major adjustment, try cooking one new-to-you vegan meal a week. You’ll quickly see the odd satisfaction one can derive from using an avocado to make a dense chocolate tart, and feel the thrill of creating “ricotta” simply by blending together tofu, basil, sautéed onions, lemon juice, salt and pepper.

Each vegan meal you make is a statement that says you’re growing and learning. It says you welcome the opportunity, not just to fill your belly with healthy, delicious food, but to challenge your mind as well.

When we learn to authentically nourish ourselves, we begin to change from the inside out, and we can become more joyful and engaged with our own hearts (and bellies), and with the hearts of all the world.

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Author: Erica Leibrandt

Editor: Evan Yerburgh

Photo Credit: Flickr

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