The idea for this post came from a Facebook group I’m in. The group is particularly for lady van dwellers, and one of the other women in the group wrote about wanting to eat healthier foods and fewer animal products. Eating healthier is a quest I’m continually on, especially as I grow older. Unfortunately, I’ve led a life of disordered eating. Unfortunately, I love sugars and carbs. Unfortunately, it’s often cheaper to buy over-processed junk food than it is to buy healthy whole foods. But still, I keep trying.
While I’ve never completely eliminated animal products from my diet, over the years I’ve had many friends and comrades who had exclusively vegan diets. I’ve been to my share of vegan potlucks and have eaten many delicious dishes prepared with no animal products. By eating with and cooking for vegans, I’ve learned a few tricks. Today I’ll be writing in general how I cook and eat, but next week’s Wednesday post will include information on ten vegan meals that are easy to prepare even if you live on the road.
I don’t think meals without animal products have to be boring. I love garlic and onions and spices. Readers will notice next week that most of my food prep instructions will begin with sauté an onion. Green, red, yellow, and orange bell peppers are delicious too. I usually use whatever I can get cheapest or free (if I’m in a town where I have a hookup for free food).
As for spices, I love basil, marjoram, turmeric, curry, oregano, cumin, chili powder, and rosemary. If you already cook, think about what spices you would use in a dish that includes meat. Making your pasta sauce vegan? You may want to use oregano and whatever other spices are in those little jars marked “Italian seasoning.” Making tacos or burritos with beans instead of ground beef or shredded pork? You may want to add cumin and/or chili powder. Making chicken-less curry? Substitute tofu or some sort of faux chicken patties for the chicken and use the same spices the recipe calls far.
I also like to use condiments to add flavor to meatless meals. For a spicy kick, I like sriracha sauce, especially the brand with the rooster on the label. For a salty flavor without so much sodium, I like Bragg liquid aminos. Made from non-GMO verified soybeans and purified water, the thin sauce (according to the label) contains “16 essential and non-essential amino acids in naturally occurring amounts.” For extra deliciousness and satisfaction, I love to dribble sesame oil over my food or mash in half an avocado. For a yummy yet indescribable flavor (maybe nutty?) and extra B vitamins, I like to sprinkle nutritional yeast over my meal or make a great “uncheese” sauce. (I’ll post the recipe for the uncheese sauce soon.) For extra nutrition, crunch, and satisfying fat, I like to add nuts (whole, sliced, or pieces of almonds, cashews, walnuts, or pecans) to whatever I’m eating.
When I sauté my onion, garlic, peppers, etc. I use extra virgin, cold pressed olive oil. My understanding is that olive oil is healthier than other oils and that extra virgin, cold pressed is healthier than other varieties of olive oil. I haven’t done a lot of research on oils, so I’d love someone who knows all about them to share all that knowledge in the comments.
All of my tips so far easily apply if one is cooking in the kitchen of a stick-and-bricks home or an RV, over a campfire or on a camp stove. Wherever you cook, you can leave out the meat, use healthy oil, and add flavor with spices and condiments.
Cooking grains can be a little trickier when cooking over a camp stove, especially for folks using one pound propane tanks. Grains can take a long time to cook and the propane in those one pound tanks goes fast. While brown rice is more nutritious than white rice, brown rice takes a lot longer to cook. I use the boil-in-bag kind that only takes ten minutes to cook after the water is boiling, or I use parboiled brown rice. For more convenience (which comes at a higher price), look for totally precooked brown rice. Trader Joe’s has it, and Minute Rice and (I think) Uncle Bens’ offer their own varieties. Minute Rice advertises that their precooked rice can be heated in the microwave, and while that’s true, it can also be added to a pan of beans and/or vegetables and warmed up and ready to eat in a few minutes.
Quinoa (pronounced /ˈkiːnwɑː/ ) cooks as fast as white rice (20 minutes or so), but is much more nutritious. I like to add vegetable bouillon cubes or canned vegetable stock to the cooking water for extra flavor. I eat it the same way I’d eat rice. I add beans and/or tofu and whatever vegetables I’m having with my meal. A friend of mine adds fresh cilantro and lime juice to her quinoa. In any case, the secret to quinoa is to rinse, rinse, rinse it. In the past I often skipped the rinsing to conserve water and complained when my quinoa tasted like dirt. After getting great results after rinsing my quinoa, now I’m a believer.
Beans are a great source of vegan protein. When I lived in a house, I cooked big batches of beans in my slow cooker and froze them in individual portions for later eating. I can’t really do that while van dwelling, so I depend on canned beans. I mostly eat vegetarian or fat-free refried beans, black beans, and garbanzo beans (also known as chickpeas). Check the label to make sure your beans don’t have lard, chicken fat or stock, bacon, or other animal products. I try to find options that include only beans, water, and maybe salt. You can rinse your beans for less sodium and reduced gassiness.
Vegan beginners, do not be afraid of tofu, tempeh, and seitan. Tofu and tempeh are made of soy, and seitan is made from wheat. All add protein and texture to a dish. Tofu particularly, seiten to a large extent, and tempeh less so tend to take on the flavors of the foods with which they are cooked. Tofu is particularly good in a sauce. Added to pasta sauce, tofu soaks up all the good flavors of the tomatoes and spices. In a curry sauce, tofu takes on the flavors in a way chicken just can’t. Seiten tends to have the meatiest mouthfeel of the three, although tempeh and extra firm tofu (and any tofu that’s been frozen) can seem meaty too. (Of course, folks going gluten and/or soy free should eat accordingly.)
Don’t feel discouraged if you don’t like new ingredients immediately. I don’t think I was a huge fan of tofu the first time I tried it, but now it’s (for real!) one of my favorite foods. I also had to learn to love nutritional yeast and Bragg liquid aminos. If you don’t like a new food the first time you eat it, give it another try (or two), perhaps prepared in a different way.
Also, try not to feel discouraged if you don’t immediately embrace a vegan or vegetarian diet 100%. At first, maybe strive to prepare every other meal without meat or other animal products. Think about meals you might already like that would be easy to prepare without meat. Could you leave the meat out of pasta sauce and add in extra veggies? (Mushrooms often have a satisfying meatiness to them.) Could you enjoy bean burritos if the beans were prepared without lard or chunks of pork? Could you substitute vegetable broth in a recipe that calls for chicken broth? Do what you can when you can and don’t beat yourself up if you don’t achieve “perfection” (whatever that is).
Next Wednesday day I will share ten ideas for easy healthy vegan meals that I eat regularly when I am living out of my van on the road.