06 April 2011

A pain free, non-intimidating guide to cooking vegan

If you clicked on this, you are probably now expecting a step by step guide on how to cook vegan. Unfortunately, cooking is just not that simple, whether it's vegan or otherwise. Cooking evolves differently for everyone based on your tastes, your interest and your tools. While I can't promise a foolproof manual I can offer some tips to get you started and get you inspired.

Know your facts

Just having a vegan diet does not mean your vegan diet is complete or even healthy. It has become a pretty firm belief of mine that if you are going to do the vegan thing you should know your facts. Find out where your vitamins and minerals are coming from and what you need to work into your diet to keep it balanced. Vegans lacking protein is really not a huge concern, but there are certainly things we could be missing, and a sickly vegan is a disgrace to us all!

I bought this wall chart a while back and I love it! It's cute (if you vegan boys are embarrassed to hang this up you can keep it rolled up in a drawer and pull it out as a guide) and so helpful! My co-op actually had them in our produce section so I didn't even have to order one.

A good book to check out is Becoming Vegan. It breaks down nutrition myths and explains the elusive B12.

PETA starter kit and recipes are a good place to start reeducating yourself on the food you will need.

Vegetarian Times Starter Kit was one of the the first things I looked at when I was really considering cutting out eggs and dairy. What I like about this guide is that it's put together by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and its an easy to download PDF - while several other starter kits like the Go Vegan Now have to be ordered.

Even Oprah has a starter kit now.


If, up until becoming vegan, your meals resembled the typical American sitcom fare of pre-roasted grocery store chicken and the flakey goodness of boxed mashed potatoes, your tastebuds may be in need of an education. The stereotype of vegans subsisting on hummus and alfalfa sprouts need not persist any longer. In fact, in my experience, the switch to the vegan diet broadened my variety of food rather than diminishing it.

My advice, try it all! After a period of time away from meat and dairy your tastebuds will have changed and you will suddenly find that you can taste, I mean actually taste, vegetables and fruits in ways you never did before. I had heard this and rolled my eyes but it's actually true. Try starting with basics that you love and then push them further. Perfect that grilled sandwich. Pile it with black beans and guacamole, throw in some thinly sliced apples, experiment with vegan cheeses or other spreads. And then branch out to things you didn't used to eat. For me that meant trying soba noodles, learning to cook brown rice and then make it interesting, making casseroles with ingredients like nutritional yeast and tahini.

Set yourself a task to try new foods. You may find some new favorites. I had never tried chard or kale until cutting out meat. Broccoli rabe was completely new. Beets a rare rare occasion. I had never had a persimmon. A plum. Ok now I'm just sounding sheltered.

Recently a friend and I tried a produce delivery service. Once a week you can order a crate of veggies and fruit to be shipped right to your door. We are using the Arganica service, but there are different farm based produce delivery companies in most major cities. What I love about this service is that you can specify what you want, or you can just order a produce box and get a bounty of goodness to pick through. The first week after ordering one of these boxes we found ourselves a little overwhelmed but then inspired. We made fried rice loaded with kale, mushrooms and carrots, we baked acorn squash, we tossed vermillion rice noodles with stir fry and whipped up fresh guacamole. I ate more veggies in that week than I normally would and I felt really great.

Farmer's markets and co-ops can be a great place to meet new food options. Last summer I tried yellow and orange watermellon for the first time. These establishments are also great because you are more likely to be buying produce that is actually in season, meaning they will be fresher, juicier and way tastier. The first thing I do when I buy a new food item is to Google it and look for easy recipes. For example I might type: blood orange recipes. A whole new world may open up to you this way.

Get inspired:

Don't feel like you would get very far competing on Top Chef? Me neither. But that doesn't mean you can't be an awesome cook in your own kitchen. Maybe you just need a little guidance, a little magic fairy to put the spark in your saucepan. Luckily, you aren't the first person to try to cook up a vegan dish - so take a page from the pros.

Here are some places where I get inspired:

Post Punk Kitchen is kind of a no-brainer. Isa Chandra is a vegan Goddess.

Vegetarian Times has tons of resources for recipes and pretty pictures of food. They also have daily or weekly recipe email.

101cookbooks is one of the first food blogs I ever stumbled upon and it remains one of my favorites. Heidi Swanson is a vegetarian who travels, cooks and photographs her beautiful food. Much of her food is already vegan or can be easily converted to a vegan recipe. Her recipes are clear and organized and her photography is always appetizing.

Just the Food is coming out with an all vegan Burger Book! I can't wait!

Vegan Yum Yum recipes are easy enough to make without much cooking knowledge but yummy enough to impress your friends

Celine Steen is pretty much hands down my favorite food photographer these days, and she's vegan! She keeps things simple and clean and all of her food just looks delicious.

For those of your looking to cook a healthy vegan dessert or a fat free meal I would turn to Fat Free Vegan Kitchen. Follow her on twitter and she will post recipes on a regular basis that will surely tempt you.

Pinterest - its a site where people "pin" their favorite internet finds. Food lovers abound on this site and you will be enviously repinning and hopefully cooking your way to wonderful food.

What Katie Ate is a blog that really inspires me, both as a photographer and a foodie. Her food isn't vegan, but it's just so beautiful it make's you want to create!

The Kind Life is Alicia Silverstone's website to promote...well the Kind Life. She's got recipes and forums and a blog and all kinds of resources to turn to not only for cooking but for the whole lifestyle.

Dudes out there looking for inspiration that wont make them feel like Martha Stewart? Turn to the Manly Vegan and the Sexy Vegan to remind you that food and nutrition need not rest with the "weaker" sex.

Get the tools:

The tools you need in your kitchen really have to do with the type of food you make. If you're like me and you love a good grilled sammy and absolutely need to make your own pesto, your kitchen items will grow to match that.

You'll see this in every cookbook you buy. Buy a good knife. It sounds silly and it sounds unnecessary, but it's actually a great idea. The difference between cutting open a butternut squash with a cheap, dull knife versus a fancy, veggie approved knife will not only reduce the hassle of chopping vegetables but it could even save you a finger.

I won't claim to know everything about knives but I have noticed that the santoku style knife has become a common item among the tv chefs. With a little more research I found that these Japanese knives are designed for chopping vegetables - how perfect! Santoku translates to the "three virtues" which refers to its three main uses: slicing, dicing and mincing. OXO sells a reasonably priced santoku that has received some pretty good reviews. In any case, keeping your knives sharp can go a long way to making your cooking experience faster and more pleasant.

For that perfect stir fry or the best cornbread around, I personally can't get enough of cast iron. It seems like a pain at first, and I did tons of research on caring for cast iron before buying any, but it's not as complicated as it seems. My favorite brand is Lodge Logic, and this little pre-seasoned 8 inch skillet was my first purchase. At only 10 dollars it's hard to turn down and it will make the perfect grilled cheese and will turn out batch after batch of caramelized onions.

While I'm not one to push gadgets usually, there is a gadget or two I find to be really really useful in the vegan kitchen.

A food processor is a lifesaver for vegans. Pesto, tofu ricotta, pizza dough, black bean burgers, shredding carrots and cabbage. There are so many uses for a food processor and while, yes, you can shred a carrot by hand, having a machine to do some of the work can shave a lot of time off your prep and give you more time for eating.

Whatever your passion ends up being in the kitchen, find a tool that will make cooking that meal easier for you. Love grilled veggies, paninis and burgers - get a grill pan or a panini press. You get the idea. As you can see from the links above though, they need not be the most expensive item you find at Williams-Sonoma.

I'll leave you with a simple recipe that I made in my earliest vegan days after a trip to the farmer's maket

Pita Pizza with Leeks, Spinach, Hummus and Radish
Makes 2

  • 2 whole wheat pita rounds
  • 2 leeks, sliced thin
  • small bunch of radishes, sliced thin
  • 2 cups torn spinach leaves
  • 3-4 tbsp roasted red pepper hummus
  • 1 avocado, diced
  • small bunch cilantro
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/4 tsp herbs de provence

1. Preheat the oven to 375. Heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a pan over medium heat. Sautee the leeks and radishes together until the leeks begin to brown and the radishes soften. Add the spinach and sautee, stirring, until the spinach is wilted and soft. Set aside.
2. Place the pitas on a foil lined baking sheet. In a small bowl combine several soup-spoonfuls of hummus, 1 tsp of olive oil and a 1/4 teaspoon or so of herbs de provence. Spread the mixture evenly on the pitas. Top the hummus with the suateed veggies.
3. Bake the pizzas for 7-8 minutes or until the sides of the pita are golden. Top each pizza with avocado and serve with cilantro.

Happy Cooking!

Lacey Walker | @quinoaween
Lacey is a food photographing, French speaking, English teaching, travel enthusiast. She's been known to cut a rug. She's also been known to spend all day in bed eating vegan waffles and talking to her cat Hibou. Follow Lacey on her blog and Flickr.

Photo credits: Lacey Walker