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.