Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Healthy, Tasty, Easy and Fun Vegan Cooking!

Yum - pumpkin soup! Make sure your pumpkin is soft (boil it)
then blend with water, veg stock, garlic and onions
Well, I'm not vegan, although I try to be for most of the week. Why? Well, it's healthier (a good way to have more energy, lose weight and clear up the skin, for starters), better for the environment, cheaper, and causes a lot less cruelty and suffering on its way to your plate. Plus it can taste amazing! For those of you who love a good steak (and believe me, I love my steaks, bacon sandwiches and chicken dishes too much to totally give them up... hey, some progress is better than none!), the word "vegan" might conjure up images of malnourished hippies sharing a cupful of lentils and leaves, but there is so much more to it than that. The meat and dairy industries are very powerful, their influence extending into our schools and media, convincing us that we can't live without their products. Well, take the time to meet a few vegans and you'll soon notice that they're still alive! Not only that, but a lot of the vegans I know have a healthy glow and look very healthy.For me, cooking vegan makes me feel as if I'm doing something good for the environment and for myself, and forces me to be creative - and hey!- it produces some delicious results.

Of course, it all depends on how you do it. Technically, bags of crisps, mountains of sweets and starchy white bread are vegan, but surviving entirely on those won't do you a lot of good, but neither will massive steaks covered in melted cheese every day. As mothers throughout the ages have always said - "everything in moderation". With "super-sized" meals and perhaps less nutritional education being taught these days, meat-to-veg ratios have crept more and more out of balance. The amount of meat you eat with one meal, for example, should only be the size of a deck of cards (e.g. see the American Cancer Society's diet suggestions for staying healthy). How many of us can honestly say that we follow those guidelines?

Despite the many benefits of a vegan diet, I wouldn't advise cutting meat out unless you've read up on nutrition and know what things you need to eat to balance out the sudden drop in protein and vitamin D. And, of course, if you have reason to believe it might harm your health you should consult a doctor or nutritionist first. There are plenty of people waiting to tell you how unhealthy the diet is, and plenty of sensationalist stories about people who became ill on vegan diets, but usually it is that those people had not fully researched what their bodies needed before cutting out all animal products, and a lot of misinformation exists about what you can and can't get from a vegan diet.

I still eat meat in two or three meals a week (small amounts, usually) and try to avoid milk products just because they don't sit well with me (although I love the taste of cheese). I find that creating vegan meals at home helps me to be creative, and for those of you who might have no idea of where to start, I've been taking pictures of my meals for the last couple of weeks to show you. This is not "how to be vegan", but "some nice ideas for meals which are tasty and just so happen to be vegan"!

Suggested things for your kitchen:
As many vegetables as you can get your hands on: courgettes/zucchini, peppers, aubergine/egglant, tomatoes, leek, onions, spring/green onion, cabbage, pumpkin, squash, avocado (technically a fruit but amazing with everything), broccoli, green beans, asparagus, spinach, garlic
Herbs and leaves for flavour, for example coriander, mint, rosemary, basil, oregano, cilantro, thyme, chives
Spices for flavour: tandoori, chilli, cayenne pepper, ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, anise, tumeric, paprika
To go with the vegetables: cous-cous, brown rice, pasta, vermicelli noodles, spaghetti, quinoa, chickpeas, lentils, any other noodles (I love Japanese udon)
In place of meat/dairy: tofu, tempeh, Quorn "meat", coconut milk, rice or almond milk
Items: frying pan, saucepan, blender, knife

Make something:
For today, instead of following a recipe, I want you to be creative! Pick one grain (rice, pasta, noodles), then start chopping up your vegetables. Take perhaps six vegetables and cut up a tiny bit of each one (say the size of a deck of cards per vegetable, if cooking for one). Set a frying pan on the stove and put some healthy, extra virgin olive oil on there. Now, let your intuition guide you. It might be wrong, but you'll find out for next time! Pick perhaps two spices and mix them in with the oil on the pan. Then cut up two or three of your leaves/herbs and add them, too. Throw on the vegetables, and in a separate saucepan, start boiling some water for the grains. You can add some tofu in with the vegetables, too, if you like. Some other things I like to add are nuts, mango, raisins or grated coconut - we can call it some kind of Asian fusion! When your grains are ready, drain them and throw them in with everything else. If it looks a bit try, you can always try a sauce. Some nice, home-made sauces can be achieved with your blender or food processor (red peppers with a bit of spice and a splash of water!) - or you could add coconut milk, chopped tomatoes, mango chutney, guacamole... if you have vegetable stock, you could add water and turn this stir-fry into an amazing soup!

So, see what you come up with. Here are some of my latest creations:

Pasta, pumpkin, tofu, tomatoes, crushed almonds and flavours!

Soup with cabbage, tofu, courgette, broccoli and lots of tumeric for that yellow hue!

Aubergine, tofu, peppers, mushrooms, rice, spices

Tofu (shocker!), tomatoes, spring onion, raisins, coconut, mango, chillies, later added to quinoa

OK, I know a lot of this is stir-fry in many guises, but you can mix it up as much as you like! And you don't have to use as much tofu as I do - I just got really excited when I found a big block of it! To keep it fresh, you could give a different cuisine's "feel" to each one - you could add a little curry powder, raisins, rice and naan bread for an Indian meal, for example, or seaweed, tofu and miso if you want to go Japanese. Soy sauce is always a nice base for Chinese-style dishes (and you can add pineapple and bamboo shoots if you can find them). For Thai flavours, crush up some chillies, lemongrass (if you can get hold of it), ginger and squeeze in some lime juice. Go "Italian" with tomato-based sauces and mushrooms, or find some tortilla wraps (careful, some have milk in them) and make yourself a delicious burrito (spice optional) - refried beans are a good option, and Mexican food comes with plenty of delicious guacamole.

Even if you're not vegan, it's something to at least say you tried something that was actually pretty good - don't knock it 'til you've tried it! Also, remember that potato-based delights, beans on toast, hummus dips and fruit salads are all tasty snacks with no meat or dairy in them. Then, you can feel more justified when you tuck into that big, juicy steak! Have fun in the kitchen, and please comment below with any of your own ideas/recipes/stories!

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