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Me: Vegan!

Senior Food Editor Tim Cebula, omnivore, switched to an all-plant diet with the expert help of our favorite vegan chefs. He went in growling, came out crowing.
Image Credit: Photo: Frederic Lagrange

If you use the latest cookbooks as your guide to the New American Diet, you might conclude that ours is a nation that is whipsawed between two faiths: the meaty, hunter-gatherer creed of Paleo preachers and the plant-based puritanism of vegans. For a few years now, I have been agog at the sheer volume of Paleo and vegan books that cross my desk, many from splinter sects: The Paleo Chocolate Lovers' Cookbook, The Vegan Stoner Cookbook (not kidding), and Bake and Destroy: Good Food for Bad Vegans, to name a few.

Me, I'm a health-focused but comfortably middle-of-the-road Cooking Light omnivore, so I was a little taken aback when my editor suggested I go vegan for a month. Paleo might be more in my line: There's always been plenty of carni in my omni. Also—and maybe unfairly—veganism seemed a little sanctimonious to me, carrying a patchouli whiff of dusty health-food stores.

So going vegan made me nervous, and not only because of its severe restrictions. Vegetable-only eating isn't a risky proposition for most people—the days of worrying about inadequate protein intake are largely over—but I had a reason to consult my gastroenterologist, who treats me for chronic ulcerative colitis. A vegan diet would vastly increase my fiber intake, and that was a worry.

"I'm going vegan for a month," I told him, expecting to hear it was a bad idea.

He raised his eyebrows and shook his head. "Good luck with that. Meat is delicious."

With this dubious bit of medical clearance, I took a crash course in veganism. A month later, I emerged to happily conclude that a deep dive like this may be the best way for almost any omnivore to substantially and permanently change the proportion of plants in his or her diet for the better.

That's what happened to me. While I love meat and animal products too much to give them up entirely, I now eat far less of them than I used to—about half as much—a year after my vegan immersion. A mere 30 days of vegan eating produced a seismic shift in the way I look at the food landscape—in supermarkets, restaurants, and my kitchen. The experience rebooted my appetite and helped me learn to enjoy consuming plants and animal products in a much healthier ratio (even though we eat an awful lot of plants every day in the Test Kitchen). It also made me a better cook. It doesn't take much talent to make a steak taste good—even a lean grass-fed one, if you follow the Cooking Light technique (if you're curious about that, see the recipe for Pan-Seared Strip Steak). But if you can turn out drool-worthy carrots, broccoli, or wheatberries as center-of-the-plate main courses, now that's the path to a healthy New American Diet.

Before my month began, I sought tutelage from the most expert vegans I know: Richard Landau and his wife, Kate Jacoby, chef-owners of Vedge in Philadelphia, arguably the best vegan restaurant in America. Landau and Jacoby are smart, fun, and hip (not to mention healthy-looking and thin), and they don't proselytize about anything except the need for great flavor. Meat-loving residents of the cheesesteak metropolis regularly leave dinner at Vedge utterly seduced and satisfied. Vedge's beefy smoked eggplant braciole with briny olive puree and Sicilian salsa verde can go testa a testa with a rolled flank steak any day of the week. The sweet potato pâté is a marvel of meaty taste and balanced textures. Jacoby's signature sticky toffee pudding with smoked-pecan dairy-free ice cream causes swoons. Their vegan food is confoundingly good; their advice is invaluable. And they are, in a word, cool.

VEGAN LESSON 1: COOK LIKE YOU MEAN IT

"The first rule: Avoid hippie-dippie," Landau tells me. "Do not steam everything. Do not dress things with just a drop of lemon juice. Don't put sprouts on everything. Don't just boil your vegetables and think they're going to be good. You've got to put some soul into your cooking."

Landau lays out the basics over a cup of coffee with soy milk before we head into the Vedge kitchen for a hands-on demo of vegan cooking principles. I'm a former restaurant cook, and in retrospect I expected their kitchen to look more, I don't know, Zen-garden-ish? Which is ridiculous: They cook real food, with the same equipment, except that when you nose around, you find that their refrigerated lowboy shelves are stocked for that night's service with food entirely devoid of cholesterol.

Landau's first advice gets at the heart of preconceptions about vegan food: that it's very healthy but also austere, stingy, and bland. If you apply his guns-a-blazing techniques, it's anything but. That said, producing the sort of flavor-forward, exuberant vegan food that Landau cooks requires special methods and strategies.

"If food isn't important to you, I think it's very simple to be a vegan," he says. "But if you love food and grew up eating everything, it's remarkably hard to do this. You really have to keep your palate entertained."

Landau, 46, ate meat—and loved it—until he was in his teens, when ethical decisions led him to a vegan diet. With all those blood tastes in his memory, though, he says he needed to get "caveman flavor" into his cooking.

And so technique becomes more important than ever. Any cook who's solid on the fundamentals—roasting, grilling, sautéing—has what it takes to make a relatively tasty vegan dish. But to make it really sing, you have to use serious skill every step of the way, coaxing deliciousness from the ingredients while layering flavors and varying textures. And you need to think the whole process through.

Consider, for instance, a pot of vegetable soup. You could toss some random chopped veggies (whatever's in the fridge) in some water, boil until tender, and have, technically, soup. You could simmer those same veggies in commercial vegetable stock and wind up with a more flavorful concoction.

Or you could begin by selecting your vegetables carefully: butternut squash and parsnip for sweetness; turnip for peppery earthiness; beefy dried porcini mushrooms; subtle, herby celery root. Then sweat onion and garlic in fruity olive oil until soft and intense. Add chopped root veggies, and sauté until they're caramelized; then deglaze the pan with liquid from the soaked mushrooms so the meaty broth releases the rich brown fond stuck to the bottom of the pot. Simmer the mixture in homemade vegetable stock you've made with lightly charred veggies for deeper flavor (a layering technique). Throw in fresh thyme and a touch of rosemary. When the veggies are tender, puree half the mixture until smooth and silky as cream; then stir it back into the chunky soup (texture). Season with a touch of sherry vinegar to balance sweetness. Ladle into a bowl; top with crispy frizzled leeks (more texture), a little more chopped fresh herbs (yup, more layering), and a drizzle of your best olive oil. You get the picture: Excellent vegan cooking is not a lazy man's game. But, wow, is it worth the effort.

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VEGAN LESSON 2: UMAMI IS YOUR FRIEND

Vegan cooks have four of the five main tastes—sour, sweet, salty, and bitter—well in hand. But the fifth taste, umami (loosely described as rich, deep meatiness), is elusive. You have to seek out vegan sources—mushrooms, nuts, olives, seaweed, ripe tomatoes, avocado, and soy sauce—and work them in whenever possible. Even more than the volume of vegan food you eat, umami is what will make you feel satisfied.

Landau immediately tells me I'll need to up my soy sauce game. He doesn't mean add more of my grocery store--variety soy sauce. The soy sauce most of us know and enjoy hits a narrow band of flavor notes. But, like alcohol, soy sauce is a fermented product and can be deeply complex. "Spend money on your soy sauce," he explains. "Buy something that's aged, deep, mystical, layered. It's not about the salt."

I learn what he means by trying nama shoyu. It's raw, unpasteurized soy sauce with live enzymes, and it has changed my life. I now value it as much as any seasoning in my kitchen. It turns a plate of grilled vegetables into a meal, a bowl of quinoa into a revelation. Supermarket soy sauce lends meaty saltiness but makes food ultimately taste like soy sauce. Nama shoyu makes food taste like an irresistibly more intense version of itself.

Even flavors reminiscent of fire-cooked meat, like smoke, can make vegan food delectable. This is why Landau chars his veggies in the pan a little bit before making stock with them: The alluring hint of smoke delivers umami notes. Grilling veggies, tofu, or tempeh gives the same effect. If an open flame isn't available, turn to smoked paprika, chipotles, or canned fire-roasted tomatoes.

VEGAN LESSON 3: THE WORLD IS NOT YOUR OYSTER, OR EVEN YOUR SOYSTER

It's hard out there for a vegan. "In the supermarket, most of the stuff in there is not for you," Landau says. "If you go to a restaurant, 95% of the menu is not for you."

"It's a nonvegan world, so you're living in a sense as a minority," adds Jacoby.

This becomes clear on my first trip to the supermarket as a vegan, when I realize how much—products, shelves, entire aisles—is off-limits. Like a newly resolved teetotaler might look wistfully at the wine and beer aisle, I drift past the butchered meats with a sidelong gaze. Perhaps we'll meet again, filet mignon ...

But over the course of my month, I develop Vegan Vision. It's disorienting but fun: Plant-based foods bloom in my eyes with new potential, and those invaluable umami sources practically glow, while animal products, including dairy, recede.

The meat-free section in the frozen foods aisle is filled with vegetarian-friendly soy products, of course, but many don't work for vegans because they contain minute amounts of dairy. And the "dairy" you can have—I'm looking at you, fake cheese—is simply awful. "Most vegan cheeses suck," Landau says. "Whoever invents great vegan cheese is going to be a billionaire."

Even wine can be a little dicey: Many bottles of the ancient, biblically condoned elixir use animal-derived agents in the filtering process.

As for dining out, I come to learn that I'm better off cooking at home, at least in my midsized city. Even at ethnic restaurants whose native cuisines are generally more plant-based, I find myself being "that guy," asking the server if there is an animal product lurking in the sauce. The server checks with the kitchen. Almost without fail, there is.

"Don't be discouraged," Jacoby counsels. "Be proactive and call ahead to see what they recommend for vegan meals. You may be pleasantly surprised."

GRADUATE REFLECTIONS

Did I cheat? Once or twice. But not because I hankered for a hunk of cheese or meat. My transgressions were all about expedience: in restaurants, eating rice that may have been cooked in chicken broth, or noodles that possibly contained egg. I also drank nonvegan wine, figuring that's as good a place to draw the line as any.

As for my health, I dropped a few pounds. And my GI doc's nonchalance about the experiment was well founded: My digestive system improved.

What surprised me most about the experience was how little I missed eating meat, which is a testament to how satisfying a well-cooked plant-centric diet can be. Meat used to play a starring role in at least two of my three daily meals, with cameo appearances in weekend breakfasts. Now I eat about 50% less—voluntarily, with no feeling of sacrifice—and enjoy it twice as much, partly because I now feel entitled to splurge on the good stuff: heritage-breed pork chops, grass-fed steaks, line-caught fish, raw-milk cheese. So, omni: yes. Carni: much less.

I highly recommend a vegan month to anyone looking to make a substantial dietary shift. Like any focused, disciplined change to something as habitual as eating, it has an outsize effect, opening your eyes and broadening your palate, changing your perception and understanding of what constitutes a delicious meal. Whether the change is permanent remains to be seen, but for me it's been a year and counting. What's for sure is that a brief taste of the vegan life made me a smarter cook and a happier eater.